First-teamer Mychal Rivera caught six passes for 54 yards Saturday in Game 2 vs. Cincinnati. That's the most single-game receptions by a Vol tight end since Chris Brown caught seven balls in the 2007 opener vs. California.
Counting two catches for 32 yards by backup tight end Brendan Downs, Tennessee got eight receptions from the tight end position. The last time that happened was Jan. 1, 2007, when Brown (seven) and Brad Cottam (one) combined for eight grabs in an Outback Bowl loss to Penn State.
Eight catches may not sound like an avalanche but it represents quite a jump from Game 1, when none of Tennessee's 18 receptions was recorded by a tight end.
"The first week there were two pass interferences and coverages just weren't looking my way," Rivera explained. "Some games are your games and some games aren't....
"The Saturday before they really did try to get me the ball but things didn't go correctly. This week things opened up for me, and I was really proud. You work hard during practice - blocking and running routes - so it feels really good to get that reward of getting the ball thrown to you, catching and doing some things with it."
Tennessee's passing game has been white-hot to date. Justin Hunter caught 16 passes for 302 yards (18.9 per catch) and two touchdowns in the first two games. Fellow sophomore wideout Da' Rick Rogers added 15 catches for 200 yards (13.3 per catch) and three TDs. Since future opponents are sure to focus on containing Hunter and Rogers, it's important that Rivera make them pay.
"It's very important," the 6-3, 254-pound junior conceded, "because it shows all of the teams that they can't really put the safety over the top of Justin or Da'Rick because they've got me coming around there."
The success of Hunter and Rogers last Saturday contributed to Rivera's productive afternoon but so did the head man's determination to involve the tight end in the air attack.
"Tight end is important," Derek Dooley said. "We used the tight end a lot last year, and we're going to keep doing it this year. I'm a tight end guy, (Offensive coordinator Jim) Chaney is a tight end guy. We like throwing to the tight end; it takes some pressure off the perimeter."
Certainly, finding the tight end is a good percentage move. Most throws to him are short ones that tend to succeed at a high rate.
"You ought to complete about 85 percent of them – just boom, boom," Dooley said. "Throw it to the big guy. And, if he's a good player, he can make some plays for you."
In addition to helping the Vols score points, Rivera is helping groom freshman backups Brendan Downs (6-5, 237) and Cameron Clear (6-6, 265) to fill his shoes one day.
"Brendan's coming along great," Rivera said. "He's developing very well. He's going to be good. Cameron's developing well, too. He's going to get his opportunity to shine real soon."
That's because Tennessee's offense gives its tight ends the opportunity to contribute in a variety of ways.
"It's really tight end-friendly here," Rivera said. "In the running game we run a lot of two-tight end sets, which is really a blessing. And in the passing game I'm really involved."
Besides a tight end-friendly scheme, Rivera benefits from having a quarterback who is playing as well as anyone in college football. Tyler Bray ranks No. 4 nationally in passing yards (698) and No. 5 nationally in pass efficiency (204.2 rating). He has completed 78.5 percent of his passes (51 of 65) with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. He makes Tennessee's offense quite imposing.
"It's dangerous because we've got Tyler Bray," Rivera said. "He's awesome. Anybody they put out there (to catch it) he's going to sling the ball really well. I really feel he has it.
"Looking at the end of last season and these first two games I'm really confident. I really feel Tyler's going to be the next (big) thing."
Vol tight end Mychal Rivera picks up yardage against Cincinnati in Week 2 of the 2011 season. Photo by Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com