How Tennessee replaces physical receiver Bru McCoy and his perimeter blocking is one of the biggest questions facing the No. 19 Volunteers on Saturday afternoon against Texas A&M and for the rest of this season as well.
Sixth-year senior tight end Jacob Warren is ready to offer his services.
"Obviously, the first person that I would say is myself and the tight ends in general," Warren said earlier this week in a news conference. "I think his physicality is something you really desire, and you want that on the perimeter for all of the little passes that we throw out to the side."
The biggest highlight of Tennessee's otherwise lethargic 30-13 downing of Austin Peay on Sept. 9 was a 43-yard touchdown pass from Joe Milton III to tight end McCallan Castles that capped the scoring and finally put the Governors away with 8:03 remaining. A short gain became a lengthy touchdown because McCoy blocked a defender nearly 40 yards to the goal line, providing Castles a down-the-sideline avenue to the end zone.
McCoy and his blocking skills were lost for the season due to the fractured and dislocated ankle he sustained during the second quarter of the 41-20 vanquishing of South Carolina on Sept. 30.
"The block he had for McCallan are the things that are really special about him that your team is going to miss," Warren said.
Tennessee does not have another receiver who can match McCoy's 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame, so the 6-6, 253-pound Warren and the 6-5, 252-pound Castles may have to pitch in more on that front. The top two tight ends have been plenty busy catching passes, with Warren having amassed seven receptions for 54 yards and two touchdowns, and Castles seven for 100 with one score.
Warren didn't quite average a catch a game last season, when he had 12 receptions for 163 yards and never reached the end zone.
"Sometimes it can be the ball finding him more based off the coverages you're seeing," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said, "but I also think that Jacob has developed as a dynamic leader for us on the offensive side of the football. He's had continued physical development, which has allowed him to play his best football."
Warren has logged 46 career games with the Vols since signing out of Farragut High School back in 2018, and his best football could be needed with Texas A&M, Alabama and Kentucky next in line. The same could be said for Castles, who has just five career appearances with Tennessee after transferring from UC Davis.
"I think because of Bru's injury that we could be more active, but also because we've proven that when the ball comes our way, we can make plays," Warren said. "Whether we've gotten touches or not, I think we've done what we've been asked to do. The moment we do start getting our number called a little bit more, we're more than prepared to attack it and be ready for it."
Said Heupel of his tight ends: "I need them to continue to come on. They've made some big plays, and we've had some plays we were close on, too. They'll be a factor in the game."
Scaling back slightly
The upper-body injury to Brigham Young transfer linebacker Keenan Pili during Tennessee's opening win over Virginia may have immediately put more stress on Aaron Beasley, but that hasn't been the case in recent contests.
With the continuing improvement of sophomore Elijah Herring and freshman Arion Carter, playing time actually went down slightly for Beasley against South Carolina.
"I like it," Beasley said this week. "When I get to the 60- or 70-play range in a game, it's not good for the body, so I like it. I think it helps us all stay fresh, me especially, so I like how we do that."
Leacock still working
The first five games of Tennessee's season have not contained any appearances for freshman receiver Nathan Leacock, who was a top-100 national signee out of Raleigh, North Carolina.
"He has a unique skill set of size and speed," Vols offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said this week. "It's just been learning our system and going through it. A lot of times, we forget they're freshmen and that they're young and that some people aren't ready in year one.
"He's working to get himself ready, because we still have a long run on the back end of this season. Hats off to him, because he's still working. He just hasn't broken through."
Final injury update
In his final news conference of the week, Heupel was asked Thursday about the health of junior receiver Dont'e Thornton and senior cornerback Doneiko Slaughter.
"The guys who have been nicked up have all had good work," he said. "We typically wait until Friday or pregame warmups before we make a final determination from our medical staff and the players themselves, but I anticipate those guys being ready to roll."
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].