JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Several Tennessee Vols felt a little strange working out Friday afternoon on Steve Spurrier Field but sophomore tight end Brendan Downs wasn't among them. He was experiencing a little deja vu.
"I've got good memories on this field," he said, "so it feels good to be back."
Those good memories were forged two years ago, when Downs led Tennessee High of Bristol to an upset of the heavily favored Science Hill Hilltoppers on the very field where the Vols practiced on Friday. His late touchdown catch provided the winning points.
"We were down by two touchdowns at one point," Downs recalled, adding that he made his big catch on the Vikings' third scoring drive. Then, pointing toward the field, he said, "It was right there, the 20-yard line."
Making his feeling of deja vu even stronger was the fact Tennessee used the same dressing room that Tennessee High used two years ago.
"I remember everything being in the visiting locker room over there," Downs said. "I put my stuff in there, and it was pretty cool."
Another thing that's "pretty cool" is working with the first-team in practice. With senior Mychal Rivera sidelined by a minor knee problem, Downs is getting the first-team repetitions at tight end this week.
"I've been taking reps with the ones but he should be back soon," Downs said. "It's cool. It's definitely good experience for me, trying to get timing with them and work as hard as I can."
Given that Tennessee has some of the finest facilities in college football, it seems strange that the Vols are spending a week in the Tri-Cities, splitting their time between Milligan College (which has no football facilities) and Science Hill High School. With Tennessee's operations being moved from the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex into the new football facility, however, head coach Derek Dooley opted to relocate for seven days.
"It's a little odd," Downs said. "It's different but it's still football. It's still focused on football. There definitely are fewer distractions, just to get away. And we're all here together, so it's a team-bonding experience. It's good."
With Rivera sidelined, Downs and parttime fullback Ben Bartholomew were the only tight ends on the Vol roster earlier this week. That prompted Tennessee to move defensive tackle Joe Ayres and linebacker Justin King to the position.
"Justin is a great athlete, and Joe's big and can block well," Downs said. "They're doing well. They're still learning a lot but they'll be good."
Downs caught just three passes for 34 yards as a true freshman last fall but turned heads in the Orange & White game by posting four receptions for 51 yards. That gave his confidence a real boost.
"That definitely helped a lot," he said. "That was big for me, to get in there and get catches. I felt a lot better that game. I was starting to feel like myself again."
The reference was to his weight. After arriving at Tennessee packing just 230 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame, he bulked up to 255. He was not comfortable with the weight for a while.
"I gained a lot of weight initially, so I had to get my legs back under me," Downs said.
Those 255 pounds come in quite handy now that he's comfortable carrying them, especially when he's blocking.
"It definitely helps a lot," he said. "Not just the weight but strength-wise, too. It makes a big difference for me."
See footage of the Tennessee tight ends at work during training camp in the video below from InsideTennessee: