A similar downsizing could occur this fall at tight end. After catching 11 passes for 112 yards as the chief backup to senior Luke Stocker last fall, Mychal Rivera seems a virtual lock to be the No. 1 tight end this season. The 6-3, 263-pound junior needs to step up his play a bit, however, or the tight end's role could be substantially reduced in 2011 ... much as the fullback's role was in 2006.
Sophomore Channing Fugate reportedly has been very impressive this spring, so it appears the fullback will play a major role in the 2011 offense. If the Vols choose to start three wide receivers - as they did in three of 13 games last season - tight end could be reduced to a part-time position.
Bottom line: Rivera needs to pick up the pace or being the No. 1 tight end will not translate into significant playing time come fall.
"Mike's first few days weren't as sharp as you might have hoped for a guy who played almost 300 snaps last year," tight ends coach Eric Russell said recently. "I didn't see that jump that says, 'I'm the guy. I'm the tight end at Tennessee right now.'"
Russell said Rivera's attitude and work ethic are fine but that he simply hasn't taken charge the way he needs to.
"He's got to learn to play faster and with more confidence," the Vol aide said. "I think Mychal's comparable to Luke in his ability to be physical. Mychal's not a coward. He'll lead with his face; he'll strike you. But Mychal is not close to as good a technician as Luke was, and that's where we've got to get Mychal."
That's understandable. Stocker was a fifth-year senior last fall, whereas Rivera was a first-year junior college transfer. As a result, he's light-years behind Stocker in terms of learning curve.
"We need to improve Mike's overall understanding of how the parts move - communicating with the offensive line, understanding different fronts and how things can change like that," Russell said, snapping his fingers. "A lot of times last year Mike didn't have to be in that role. In his spot (second tight end) it wasn't going to change much.
"Now he's at that Y (position) and sometimes we're going to flex him out (like a wide receiver), Mike's not there yet. He's not the threat Luke was in the throwing game, and he lacks the speed Luke had right now.
"We're missing Luke but the 2011 season is going to be here, and we're going to find somebody that's going to be ready to go."
Asked where he misses Stocker the most, Russell paused thoughtfully before responding.
"I miss him in the meeting room," he said. "He had a good understanding of our offense and some of the nuances of it. He made my life easy as a coach. I've got to be a little more detailed with our guys now. He understood the big picture and how to play his position."