Tennessee's coaches knew Alex Bullard could play center, guard and tackle. They didn't know if he could play tight end but, when injuries depleted the position, they decided to find out.
So far, so good. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound junior from Franklin saw considerable reserve action at tight end in Game 1 against North Carolina State and against Georgia State in Game 2.
"He's limited in what you're going to do with him," first-year tight ends coach Charlie Coiner said recently. "I mean, you're not going to run any vertical routes with him. But he got around 23 snaps (in Game 1) and I thought he did a really good job."
Bullard may not be running deep routes anytime soon but he still can be an asset in the passing game.
"I was really happy with him because when you do that (put a lineman at tight end) sometimes you pigeon-hole yourself with what you're going to do," Coiner said. "We've got some pretty fast guys on the outside. If they (defenders) load the box up assuming it's a run play Alex can pass-protect as well as any tight end or any tackle next to him, so now you can go vertically down the field with him in there."
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman was happy to share Bullard and equally happy with his debut at tight end.
"I thought he did a nice job," Pittman said. "He gave us that extra power package that we were looking for."
Bullard gives the Vols a "power package," all right. When he replaces 245-pound first-team tight end Mychal Rivera, Tennessee adds 55 pounds of bulk to its front line.
"It was nice for him because he started (at center) in the spring," Pittman said, "so it was nice for him to get those 22 reps."
Bullard started six games at left guard and six at center in 2011. He was the first-team center coming out of spring practice but slipped into a utility-type role during preseason camp. That made him expendable enough in the blocking front to help out at tight end. The other option among O-linemen was 6-foot-2, 310-pound reserve guard Marcus Jackson.
"You're not going to move Marcus out there because Marcus doesn't have the height and the things you're looking for to set that edge," Pittman said. "Marcus is a guy we plan on playing quite a bit. 'Bull' was a guy who was backing up two spots and he had played in games before. We thought it was easiest to move him out, and he did nice job with it."
Because he started all 12 games in 2011, Bullard knows Tennessee's blocking schemes quite well. That made his adjustment to tight end a little simpler.
"I would say he's our sixth lineman," Coiner said. "You try to get your best people on the field, so you put him out there. That's a great situation to have: A guy who knows the front side of the offense. The negative is that you're one ankle (injury) away from him having to go back (to the offensive line)."
So, when is Tennessee going to let the 300-pound Bullard run a route and catch a pass?
"I'd just hang on," Coiner said with a laugh. "We'll see."