March 30, 2009

Physical play extends to tight end position

Learning a new offense and competing alongside close friend Luke Stocker for playing time, Tennessee senior tight end Jeff Cottam knows the best way to catch his coaches' attention during spring camp -- and it isn't by catching passes.

"Coaches are always telling us to get noticed, and the best way to get noticed is to hit somebody real hard and be real physical," Cottam said. "Try to knock somebody on their butt."

Adds the junior Stocker, who started all 12 games last season, "We feed off the energy and atmosphere (coaches instill), but it's demanded of us to be real physical in the run game. If we can't be physical, then they're not going to let us play. That's demanded of us daily, and we're expected to come out here and do that."

The Vols' offense under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney already has Tennessee brandishing a more punishing run game in their pro style set. Close friends off the field, Cottam and Stocker are vying for the same snaps on it.

"Yeah, it is a bit of a friendly competition," said the 6-foot-8-inch, 260-pound Cottam. "I think we're really good for each other. We're both pushing each other and both trying to be in the starting position. I know we'll share that a lot this year probably.

"But it's been that way since I've been here with my brother (Brad, now in the NFL); I've always pushed him and he's always pushed me. Now it's me and Luke pushing each other and making each other better."

After catching 13 passes for 139 yards last season, the 6-6-, 240-pound Stocker knows the competition -- which last season was hampered by Cottam's back injury that denied him five games -- benefits both players. Another of last season's tight ends, Brandon Warren, is adjusting to his new role as a wide receiver.

"Me and Jeff are good friends. Right now, I think me and him are helping each other out as we go," said Stocker, a Berea, Ky., native who has drawn praise from a trio of offensive coordinators during his three years at Tennessee. "Making it a competition and making each other better."

Improving remains both players' goal as they ready for the third week of the Vols' spring camp.

"Overall, I think we've progressed pretty well. Me and Luke are, in my opinion, very good tight ends for Division I," Cottam said. "We'll both be getting in there starting a lot and playing a lot of solo and two tight end, but we've grasped the offense real well and everything's coming together real good."

That's the way the players approach each day, according to Stocker.

"I feel like from the first day of practice through two weeks as a group of tight ends we've made a lot of strides," Stocker said. "We're a lot further along in the offense and I think (Saturday), we had limited opportunities to make plays. I think with the ball being wet we ran the ball more but as far as spring practice as a whole, I feel like we've come a long way. …

"It's hard to set goals for spring practice, but what you do want to do is come out and work on one thing each day to get better. That way you improve every day of practice. And at the end of spring practice, you're much further along than where you started."

Waggner getting comfortable

The defensive star of Saturday's 11-on-11 work was redshirt freshman safety Prentiss Waggner, who picked off a couple of passes and had a hand in several other big plays.

One of Waggner's interceptions was nullified by a pass interference penalty, something that spurred Waggner to find atonement later in practice.

"They took one from me. I knew I needed to get another one and I got it there on third down," said the 6-2, 177-pounder. "That was pretty big for me and my team."

Waggner showed he wasn't uncomfortable with the ball in his hands, taking his interception down the right sideline as his defensive teammates roared their approval.

"I'm just trying to get my team off the field," Waggner said. "I'm also a playmaker when I get the ball in my hands."

Further, he's getting increasingly comfortable within the system of new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

"That was real big on me coming into the spring. I wanted to do good. I wanted to do great but the first couple practices I had kind of a rough time, trying to do too much," Waggner said. "The last couple of practices I've just been letting the game come to myself. I've started to make more plays also.

"This year's practices are very much like a game so when it comes game-time, it's going to seem easy, like the coaches said. Everything's full-speed, from stretching all through practice. That's why we don't do conditioning after practice, because practice is so intense."

Waggner insists he'll retain his eager approach.

"(Saturday's effort) is not just going to do it," he said. "Each and every day I'm trying to come in and get better."

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