After winning four of five games to end its 2010 season and with sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray settled in at starter after winning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week three times in that stretch, expectations for the Tennessee offense are on the rise.
Much of that momentum hit a stumbling block on Tuesday, which led to coach Derek Dooley saying it was "enough to make you sick" in regards to the inability of the offense to show consistency.
Rivera, a redshirt junior tight end, felt his coach's pain but didn't harp on being held without a catch at Neyland Stadium.
"Of course I was frustrated, but that is not really my main focus — getting catches and everything. I just want the team to do well," Rivera said.
Last season, Rivera started all 13 games at tight end and hauled in 11 catches for 112 yards.
"He's a little inconsistent," Dooley said. "He shows flashes that he can be a really good tight end for us and then he kind of goes in some funks where he makes some mistakes. His challenge is to perform at the level that he's capable of performing all the time."
Rivera's 2010 numbers should climb considerably with Luke Stocker graduated and onto the NFL. Stocker tallied 39 catches for 417 yards and two touchdowns. His last grab for the Orange and White was a 20-yard TD reception against North Carolina in the first overtime of the Music City Bowl.
|Freshman tight end Brendan Downs works out during Thursday's practice.|
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney spent time in the NFL working with tight ends while with the St. Louis Rams not long before coming to Knoxville. He understands the value of the position in terms of not only run block support but also keeping defenses on their toes down the seam.
If Rivera can post a stat line anything near Stocker's and come up with clutch plays to help keep the offense on schedule and the chains moving, it would be a great lift for the squad.
Dooley, Chaney and tight ends coach Eric Russell are all working diligently to bring the position up to speed.
"Coach Dooley coached tight ends in the NFL, so anytime he comes over there your ears perk up a little bit," Rivera said. "He was just teaching us our footwork, run block techniques, just all kinds of stuff. Coach Dooley is over there a lot. He's always helping us with stuff. Today he was with us for a pretty long time, so I enjoyed it."
Freshmen Cameron Clear and Brendan Downs are next in line behind Rivera but their early struggles are becoming commonplace.
"They're young," Dooley said. "I'll tell you, tight end is a hard position in our offense. You have to probably understand conceptually the offense better than any player except for quarterback. You've got to understand the run game schematics. You've got to understand the protection schemes like a running back. And, you've got to understand the route concepts like a receiver. So, we put a lot on the tight end and it's hard on them. So, they're struggling."
Clear (6-6, 265) totaled 18 receptions for 250 yards and six TDs at Central High School in Memphis.
Downs (6-5, 237) has further to go physically but had more production on the prep level than Clear in terms of catching the ball. The Bristol native caught 34 balls for 470 yards and two scores.
Clear already looks the part of a run-blocking tight end and some suggest he will grow into an offensive tackle. Downs could use a redshirt year but a lack of depth after Rivera could get him on the field much sooner than expected.