Josh Heupel already has a reputation for running what are perceived to be finesse offenses. Now, Tennessee football is losing two key veteran offensive players players who could have helped offset that reputation his first year on the job.
Offensive lineman Riley Locklear and tight end Austin Pope have been forced to retire due to medical issues. Both players reportedly confirmed their decision to the Knoxville News Sentinel Friday night, although the reports came Saturday.
Adam Sparks of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Pope’s retirement just after midnight Friday. He was going to finish his sixth year on Rocky Top in 2021, but after missing all of last year due to back surgery from a herniated disc, Patrick Brown of GoVols247 reported Saturday that he suffered another herniated disc and will require surgery.
This will require a fourth back surgery for Pope, who entered the transfer portal at the end of last season before returning to Tennessee football. The 6’4″ 243-pound redshirt senior finishes his career with UT having played in 33 games with 14 starts. He racked up seven career catches for 85 yards during that time.
However, the story of Pope wasn’t what he did as a receiving tight end. At least under Jeremy Pruitt, Pope was a hybrid who could line up as a fullback or a tight end. His forte was blocking, which is why he could complement Dominick Wood-Anderson and Princeton Fant.
Without Pope, the Vols are on notice for a blocking tight end. As Heupel spreads the field more often, this is something that will be crucial for him. Pope also would have helped since he was a blocking tight end who initially committed to the spread under Butch Jones. Now playing for Heupel, he would’ve been a great fit, so he is a huge loss.
Locklear is another blocker who committed to play in the spread, though. He was a four-star lineman on Rivals who joined the Vols in 2017 and was an early standout player. However, he only played in 24 games with just four starts, suffering a torn meniscus in 2018 and missing all of last season due to injury.
Mike Wilson of the Knoxville News Sentinel broke the news of Locklear’s retirement Saturday morning. Like Pope, he informed the outlet of his decision Friday night. Make no mistake, he’s a big loss on the line as well.
Given the departures of Wanya Morris, Jahmir Johnson, Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy, a versatile blocker like Locklear would have been a huge help up front Heupel’s first year, especially given his experience in the spread. There was reason to look forward to his return to health.
Now, though, Tennessee football will have to turn to even more unproven linemen up front. There is a lot of potential there, but this is a move that Heupel did not want just as he was entering his first fall camp with the Vols.
By losing his best blocking tight end and one of his most experienced and versatile blockers, Heupel will have to adjust his offensive system even more in his first year. Fant will still be the go-to target as the receiving tight end, but it’s not likely that there will be a by-committee system there anymore for blocking and receiving.
Simply put, just as they have had to deal with in so many other places this past year, Tennessee football will need other guys to step up in those spots. Fant needs to step up his blocking, and a backup tight end and other linemen need to emerge.