Bulldogs Beat

‘Georgia is what I’m doing now.’ How former Tennessee player fits evolving tight ends unit

Eli Wolf has too much experience with change to be intimidated by it.

He’s learned styles of three different offensive coordinators at Tennessee, his previous stop.

He’s adjusted from being known as a route runner in high school — worthy enough of a two-star recruiting moniker — to mastering the importance of blocking from the first day he arrived in a college facility.

Once the calendar hit 2019, a new surprise came Wolf’s way. Georgia’s new tight end didn’t foresee the adventures of a recruiting process when entering his name into the transfer portal. Wolf walked on at Tennessee in 2015 and never knew what it entailed.

After finishing four years at Tennessee and graduating with a business degree in December, an opportunity arose for Wolf to play his final season elsewhere as a graduate transfer. He told Tennessee’s compliance department of his intentions, then his phone began to receive more attention from coaches than it ever had.

Cue an uncomfortable type of change, at least temporarily.

The attention toward Wolf came in droves. He reached the point of only allowing coaches to contact him via email or text message.

“Realistically, I wasn’t wanting to sit and talk on the phone with all of those coaches,” Wolf said. “It was kind of unreal a little bit.”

But one of his first calls became Wolf’s greatest reward. He answered a 706 area code to solve suspense as to who was on the line.

On a mid-January day, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was one of the first to come calling. Smart could’ve been scrambling for answers after losing the services of Isaac Nauta (NFL draft, Detroit Lions) and Luke Ford (undergraduate transfer, Illinois).

“That (call) was humbling, awesome,” Wolf said. “...There was a position of need. Charlie (Woerner) and (John FitzPatrick) are both great tight ends, and I felt like I could help the room along with those guys.”

He logged 78 receiving yards and a lone touchdown in three active seasons with the Volunteers. His transfer decision, which Wolf said was “best for the future,” could’ve been for a myriad of reasons.

After sitting down with his parents and seeking advice from brother (and Tennessee alum) Ethan Wolf, the essential free agent opted to take his services within the SEC East division.

Wolf never declared it to be a factor, but more production possibilities could be in play under Georgia’s first-year offensive James Coley. If Wolf stayed in Knoxville, he would’ve joined forces with Jim Chaney who recently made the reverse move from Georgia to Tennessee. Aside from 30 receptions and three touchdowns from Nauta, the other Bulldog tight ends combined for 13 receptions and 164 yards.

“(Eli) has the ability to run routes. He has good hands,” Coley said. “(A vacancy) opens the opportunity for a lot of catches for whatever five guys can fit those roles to get that. He’s definitely in competition.”

Now in Athens, Wolf steered away from comparing the two programs or throwing subtle shade at the work of Tennessee’s staff or quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. He’s excited for a new beginning.

He still “plugs in a GPS” to find his way around town. Otherwise, Wolf’s biggest task is learning a new playbook.

Fourth time in five years. No big deal.

“There was a coaching carousel in Tennessee for a while,” Wolf said. “They were all great. Along the process, that helped me learn how to adjust on the fly. This is another transition that I’m capable of doing.”

Wolf’s journey mimics that of the Bulldogs’ tight end room: change, and a fair amount of it. There’s a new maestro in the meeting rooms as Georgia hired Todd Hartley from Miami. He’s an intense, yet exuberant figure on the practice field. There’s a palpable energy when Hartley is in charge, and he’s coaching players who are also new to the circumstances.

He’s essentially a fireball of energy, all of the time … mostly.

“He can turn (the switch) off,” Wolf said. “You don’t want a guy who turns it off on the field, though. We need that all the time.”

After the departures of Nauta, Ford and Jackson Harris (graduated, now on the Seattle Seahawks’ roster), the cupboard was bare. Senior Charlie Woerner and FitzPatrick, a redshirt freshman, are the only two holdovers from 2018. They’re joined by Wolf and a pair of freshmen, Ryland Goede and Brett Seither.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Woerner said, who essentially has a fresh start as the most-experienced tight end. “I don’t feel any pressure or anything. I’ve always been working and grinding to be in that position, and I think a lot of the guys in the tight end room are going to fill (the voids), and I’m looking forward to it.”

Wolf arrived at Georgia after being swayed with tight end being a “position of need.” His presence creates a blend of younger potential and experience. Wolf describes meetings and practice sessions as “mature,” and there’s some anticipation for them to see it translate to the season opener on Aug. 31.

“I’m excited to cut it loose,” said FitzPatrick, who has a better grasp on the playbook. “Not anymore thinking, I feel like I was in my stance last year thinking. But I’m ready to go now and just go hit someone and go play.”

For Wolf, his arrival in front of the red backdrop is a vast difference than his days in the orange and white. He took questions about making a move between rivals, but showed contentment in his choice. He’s seen the intense moments between the two teams, most notably the Volunteers’ Hail Mary win at Sanford Stadium. Ethan, his own brother, even said “I’m still rooting for the Vols.”

His new home is inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, and changes are more comfortable.

His next task is finding the way around Lumpkin Street and continuing his Athens food tour -- one thing Wolf is beginning to discover and love.

“Georgia is what I’m doing now,” Wolf said. “I live it and breathe it. I don’t think much about (my decision to leave Tennessee) anymore.”

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