Tough cookie

Derek Dooley promised the tight end would be an integral part of Tennessee's offense last fall, and he kept his word. Luke Stocker caught 39 passes and established himself as one of the top four tight end prospects for the 2011 NFL Draft.

Now that Stocker is gone, 2010 backup Mychal Rivera projects to catch a lot of balls this fall, especially since last season's reception leaders - Gerald Jones (55 catches) and Denarius Moore (47) - also are out of eligibility.

"I hope so. I hope so," Rivera said this week, grinning broadly. "That's what I'm aiming for. But, however the cookie crumbles, I'm going to step into my role and do my best."

Most likely, the cookie will crumble so that Rivera plays a key role in Tennessee's passing attack this fall. He caught 11 passes for 112 yards last season, posting a per-catch average (10.2) that was nearly identical to Stocker's (10.7). Only three returning Vols caught more balls than Rivera did last season - tailback Tauren Poole (22), wideout Justin Hunter (16) and wideout Zach Rogers (14).

"I'm very excited," Rivera said. "I'm trying to get better every day, do my best so that when my times comes I'm going to catch those balls and help us out."

Rivera signed with Oregon out of high school but couldn't qualify for admission and went to junior college. After catching 35 passes at College of the Canyons in 2009, he signed with the Vols and found himself stuck behind one of the NCAA's top tight ends. Still, Rivera figures he picked up a lot from watching Stocker that will help his career in the long run.

"He was very technical," Rivera said. "I asked him questions just about every day. Sometimes I'd get in my stance and be focusing on my steps, and I'd think of what Luke told me. He taught me a lot about the game of football."

With Stocker gone, Rivera finds himself teaching mid-term freshman Brendan Downs many of the same lessons.

"I'm doing the same thing Luke did," Rivera said. "Lead by example is one of the big things I like to do. You can't tell him (Downs) to be physical when you're not being physical. So, that's what I try to do."

At 6-6 and 250 pounds, Stocker was better at stretching the field vertically than he was at blocking. Rivera may not be as much of a deep threat but he might be a better blocker. Working closely with new strength coach Ron McKeefery, Rivera has gained weight in an effort to become a more physical player.

"I'm at 253, up from about 245 last season," he said. "I've gained about eight pounds of muscle. Coach Mac has gotten me stronger and faster. Every one of my (weight-lifting) numbers that we tested went up significantly."

Now that he has a year's experience and eight pounds of added strength, Rivera thinks he's ready to be "The Guy" at tight end.

"It feels great," he said. "I know I need to get better every day, stay focused and try as hard as I can to be the best tight end I can be."

If Rivera becomes the best tight end he can be, he expects Tennessee to have a first-rate passing attack this fall. That's because he believes quarterback Tyler Bray has made great strides since he started as a freshman last fall.

"Tyler is doing great," Rivera said. "He's getting better every day. He's come a long way and he's going to be a great quarterback.

"He's recognizing all kinds of coverages. He's throwing the ball great. He's stepping up his leadership. He's becoming a great quarterback."

Rivera hopes to keep pace by becoming a great tight end.

"I feel like I've stepped up in all areas," he said. "I've gotten a lot more physical, and I can always improve my route-running and catching, learning the plays and recognizing defenses."

Asked where he has made the most progress - as a blocker in the run game or as a receiver in the pass game - Rivera grinned.

Both," he said, pausing briefly before adding: "Yeah ... both."


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