That was clearly evident Saturday night as redshirt junior Mychal Rivera snagged five passes for 85 yards, including a clutch 19-yard catch on fourth-and-16 late in the fourth quarter in the 20-12 loss to Georgia.
Looking toward the future, the Tennessee coaches are hard at work making sure they replenish the talent and depth at tight end with Rivera set to be a senior in 2012 and with only three players on scholarship there.
One clear target of the Vol staff is Blake Jackson of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College.
The Vols appeared to be out of the running for Jackson's services until defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox had a conversation with the 6-foot-4 1/2, 232-pound playmaker in late August.
"I felt like we connected," Jackson told InsideTennessee of his phone call with Wilcox. "We hadn't talked for a little bit and it just really reminded me a lot of why I liked Tennessee so much being young. I got the family feel there. Coach Wilcox is a good guy, and he just let me know that they really need me to come play offense for them, not to just come for me."
The Vols aren't the only program that recognizes Jackson's skills. Other programs on his list of a possible destination include Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Miami (Fla.) Missouri, Oklahoma State and Tennessee.
Oklahoma came out to one of his practices recently and requested his transcripts on Friday. The Sooners may come with a scholarship offer soon.
"I'm more in touch with the teams that came in earlier," he said. "Coming into the process late, I understand what that means. But, I'm just looking for the best fit for Blake, and I definitely want to play for a winner."
Jackson, who will make his college choice on Dec. 15, has already been to Arkansas for a visit and has plans to return. He also wants to go to Stillwater, Okla., to see the campus at Oklahoma State and to Athens, Ga., to see Georgia. He's also been to see Miami (Fla.).
"I keep up with all the schools. We talk pretty much on a weekly basis," Jackson said. "Obviously, we both have got a lot of stuff going on right now, but I keep up with them with Facebook and being able to message them or whatever."
|Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has the Vols back in it with Blake Jackson.|
When asked if Tennessee is still in the running, and if he wants to get to Knoxville, Jackson said: "Still considering it, definitely."
One issue that Jackson has that many other junior college players have as well is that his games are on Saturdays and his team doesn't have a bye week. So, it not only makes it tough to visit university campuses but also to see prospective teams on television.
"Super frustrating. It's very frustrating," he said. "I try to tape as many games as I can, but I mean it's not the same. And, I'm very focused and very excited for my games also. So, it's very hard for me to focus what's happening at that level also. I try to keep up with it as much as I can, but it is very frustrating to not be able to sit down and watch and see what the schools I'm looking at are doing."
Jackson was quick to point out what he needs to see out of the school that he commits his services to, noting first and foremost that he wants to play and be targeted in the passing game above most other reasons.
"I want to go somewhere I can be a leader. I want the chance to play in BCS bowls and big games like that. Also, I want a school that can push me academically to help me for my career after football. And, a coaching staff that likes to win that I can get along with and I feel like will push me hard," he said.
Jackson, who was born in Georgia and moved to Arizona at the age of 10, admits he grew up a Vols fan and a fan of former coach Phillip Fulmer.
When asked if he quit pulling for the Big Orange when Fulmer was asked to step down, Jackson laughed: "No, no. Obviously there's a couple of years there, but I still had their back."
What Tennessee as a program has done in utilizing the tight end in its offense over the years and being a feeder system to the NFL truly catches Jackon's eye.
"That's huge. That's huge," he said. "It's not just blowing smoke. They can show you guys that they transformed and guys that they helped get better and pushed to accomplish their dreams of playing at the next level. That means a lot to me because obviously that's my dream and what I want to be doing."
Jackson has been tough to cover thus far in 2011 for the Artichokes as the sophomore caught 27 passes for 458 yards and seven touchdowns in his first six games.
He doesn't want to be a pass-catching tight end exclusively. He's working diligently to improve his run-blocking skills.
"It's coming along great. I had a great test against Arizona Western. They have a lot of Division I prospects, so it was a great test. I played pretty well. Getting better every day, just working on it. I'm improving," he said.
The playmaker continues to learn how to use his athleticism to offset his size disadvantage when slowing down hard-charging defensive ends and linebackers.
"That's what it's all about (accentuating the point of contact) and me getting on a guy and getting under his pads and striking him off the line and using my feet and my speed to get into good position," he said.
Jackson, who turned 20 in June, isn't the typical academic casualty that is forced to go the JUCO route. He actually skipped fourth grade back in elementary school, graduated from Gilbert (Ariz.) High School at 16 and wasn't quite able to get his test scores high enough to get into a four-year university.
He wants to pursue a degree in Communications and plans to enroll at his next school in January.