KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham have shown it's possible for former basketball players to thrive in football as tight ends. Tennessee wants to see whether an ex-volleyball player can make a successful transition.

Woody Quinn quit football after his freshman year in high school to pursue a volleyball career that led him to Pepperdine. But he often wondered what might have been and eventually switched back to his first love. Now he's on the verge of completing an improbable journey from a Malibu, Calif., volleyball court to Neyland Stadium.

I still haven't done anything. Getting here was a small part of my goal, but my dream is to go beyond it as well.
-- Woody Quinn

"It was hard for me to watch football, thinking, 'I wish I could do that,' or, 'I think I could do that,' " Quinn said.

After transferring from Pepperdine to California Baptist, where he played volleyball for one year, Quinn talked his way onto the Santa Ana (Calif.) College football team and showed enough potential to earn a scholarship offer from Tennessee.

Quinn is seeking to replace Oakland Raiders sixth-round draft pick Mychal Rivera as the Volunteers' main tight end. Quinn, a 6-foot-6, 253-pound junior, is behind junior Brendan Downs on the depth chart.

As a former volleyball player, Quinn certainly has leaping ability. He also possesses the athleticism required of the tight end position in today's game.

Quinn has seen how Gonzalez, who played basketball and football at California, has become a Hall of Fame level NFL tight end with the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs. And Gates, a former Kent State basketball player, develop into a Pro Bowl performer with the San Diego Chargers and how Graham has achieved stardom with the New Orleans Saints after playing four years of basketball and only one year of football at Miami (Fla.).

"There seems to be a lot of interest in that sort of athlete at that position -- a goal-line jumper and a guy who can beat you with his feet, let alone having a 6-6 frame that you can put some weight on," said Santa Ana coach Geoff Jones, who isn't related to Tennessee head coach Butch Jones.

The question is whether this former volleyball player can shake off all the rust that developed during his time away from football.

Tennessee coaches want to make sure Quinn adopts a football mentality again. They need him to become a more physical player. Butch Jones has continually called out Quinn while walking around in practice with his microphone.

"He's not where he needs to be, but we do see improvement," Butch Jones said. "The 'want to' is there. He's an individual with great character, extremely competitive. That will come with time. He just needs to continue to practice and live in that area, that arena all the time."

Quinn understands the criticism. When he switched sports, Quinn knew he'd need time to make the adjustment.

"You hear people say football is a war, you're a gladiator, this and that," Quinn said. "When you cross the line, it's different. That's been a huge mental focus for me. I've been having trouble sleeping at night because I start thinking of stuff [I can do better]. I feel myself starting to sweat."

Quinn has beaten long odds just to get to this point.

He had transferred once before when he approached Santa Ana's Jones about joining the football team. A look at Quinn's frame and transcript convinced Jones to take a chance on him.

"He came out of nowhere," Geoff Jones said. "He wasn't a recruited football player. ... He came out of the blue."

Quinn's statistics at Santa Ana weren't particularly impressive. He caught 15 passes for 252 yards and one touchdown. But he also displayed a combination of speed, size and athleticism that impressed former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley's staff.

"The tight ends that can run and catch and block — the complete package — those tight ends are difficult to find," said former Tennessee safeties coach Josh Conklin, who now is defensive coordinator at Florida International. "Sometimes you find them in basketball players, for instance, or in this case a volleyball player who's played some football."

Conklin visited Quinn in California while knowing his job was in jeopardy. After he got fired, Conklin recommended Quinn as someone the new staff should pursue. Butch Jones continued recruiting Quinn, who committed to Tennessee in January.

Quinn has come a long way, but he still has far to go.

"I still haven't done anything," Quinn said. "Getting here was a small part of my goal, but my dream is to go beyond it as well."

Tennessee ready to prove skeptics wrong