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Brendan Downs has a few flaws like just about any early enrollee.
But what difficulties the Tennessee tight end might be experiencing are almost the exact opposite of most young players at his position.
Downs has plenty to learn in the playbook, and as a target in the passing game he has plenty of room to develop as well. But in terms of literal growth, Downs has seemingly had no issue handling the physical nature of the game — which along with his participation in spring camp gives him yet another head start on contributing for the Vols.
“The Downs kid, I think he’s going to be a heck of a good football player in due time,” UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said after practice Wednesday. “We’ll just see how that development takes place.
“He has that (physicality). The interesting part about it, usually they struggle learning how to play physical football. He has that part, which is the best part. Now he’s got to learn the plays and that’s what takes time. He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid that is doing as good as he possibly can. He makes mistakes, but I treat him just like anybody else. I think occasionally he thinks I’ll be a little nicer to him because he graduated two months ago — he’s wrong. He’s learning he’s wrong.”
Chaney and tight ends coach Eric Russell might not have let up on him through 13 practices, but that certainly doesn’t mean they haven’t liked what they’ve seen from the 6-foot-5, 230-pound product of Tennessee High School.
Downs has combined for just five catches for 18 yards through two scrimmages, so he’s not yet emerged as a consistent option through the air. But with Mychal Rivera ahead of him on the depth chart, Downs has carved out a niche for himself as a blocker on the ground, which could give UT the chance to play multiple tight ends the way they’d like to this fall.
“The waters are calming down a little bit for him,” Russell said. “He’s starting to get more of the big picture, and I think he’s starting to get more comfortable. Now, he still gives me a reason every day to keep him on edge a little bit, but he’s been consistent, especially in the run game.
“We’ve cleaned up his stance a little bit and he’s getting the offense, and what you see with Brendan is when he gets his hands on you or takes the right steps, he’s going to get movement. He’s had a good week of practice where you see the light is going on for him and he’s not swimming so much.”
That could put him in deeper water right away for the Vols.
And if Saturday were an SEC contest instead of the Orange and White Game, Downs would be a candidate for action in some form or fashion.
“It would have to be a limited package and a limited role,” Russell said. “You don’t know how comfortable he’d be out there with 100,000 in Neyland Stadium yet.
“But Brendan has continued to stride, and in certain situations, we’d feel pretty confident in him on the field.”
Right-Hand Man: Harry Hiestand isn’t ready to call the transition for James Stone from a left-handed center to a righty over at this point.
But the UT offensive line coach has seen progress, which might give him a reason to eventually call the move a success.
“It’s gotten better throughout the spring,” Hiestand said. “I don’t know that I’m comfortable or that anyone is comfortable, but it’s gotten better.
“He’s handled it well, and he’s working his tail off. He strengthens his right hand every day in the weight room, and (strength coach Ron McKeefery) has a special program that has really helped make a difference.”
Bumps and Bruises: The Vols got a bit more healthy on Wednesday with a return to contact for linebacker Greg King.
But the rest of the battered linebacking corps is still somewhat uncertain heading into the Orange and White Game, and it appears Austin Johnson won’t be suiting up despite the fact coach Derek Dooley doesn’t believe the knee injury is serious. John Propst (hamstring) will be evaluated again later in the week.
Ja’Wuan James has been cleared to resume some physical activity after dealing with a case of mononucleosis, but the right tackle isn’t able to put on pads yet and won’t be available Saturday.
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.