Who'll be next breakout player?

Who will be Tennessee's next breakout player on offense? Pat Ryan, a former Tennessee and New York Jets quarterback, has identified him. He's 6-feet-8, weighs about 260, runs well, has soft hands, has improved his blocking and has matured physically.

He's tight end Brad Cottam, who caught just 13 passes for 157 yards with a long of 45 this season but showed signs of being a big-time player with some nice catch-and-run plays during the second half of the season.

Ryan sees Cottam as a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe isn't arguing.

``He's got a lot of burst about him,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He's getting stronger and more confident. With him and Chris Brown, that's a pretty good 1-2 punch.''

Cutcliffe said he's unsure why Cottam hasn't already emerged. But he sees a budding star.

``He's just now getting into his groove of what we expect of him as a player,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He's become more physical. He's become more of a complete player. He's earned the opportunity to be in the game. And you can't emerge until you're in the game.''

Like any quarterback, Erik Ainge likes Cottam's size. It makes for an inviting target.

``He's definitely got the ability,'' Ainge said. ``He's 6-8 and he looks like the David Statue. He can catch. He can block. His stats might not be the best in the country, but just watch what he does.''

Ainge said Cottam is a quiet guy who is just now figuring out how to be physical and how good he can be.

``Now that he's been really pushed for the first time ever, I think he's figuring that out,'' Ainge said.

Ryan also said he thinks Ainge could play himself into being a first-round draft pick. He said a sidearm throw against the grain against Vanderbilt on fourth down was a big-time play.

Ryan also thinks that fact that Ainge is being tutored by Cucliffe will help Ainge's draft stock because Cutcliffe stresses fundamentals.

MITCHELL WAS DEFENSIVE MVP

Marvin Mitchell was a fifth-year player who was injury prone and had a minor off-field incident which led to an arrest last spring.

He would have to play well for the defense to hold his own.

Mitchell did more than his part. He was second on the team with 92 tackles (Jonathan Hefney had 93) and tied for second with 11 quarterback hurries. He played with a bum shoulder the last few games and survived a hip pointer against Kentucky.

He was the MVP of the defense, according to defensive coordinator John Chavis.

``He really became a leader for us,'' Chavis said. ``He led by example. That's the thing I'm more pleased with than anything else. It wasn't Marvin out there talking. It was him doing.

``Not that he wasn't coachable before, but the better he played, the more coachable he got. That's a credit to him and the way he responded. He took the opportunity he had and made the most of it.''

THIRD-DOWN CONVERSIONS TOOK A DIP

The first six games of the season, Tennessee converted a remarkable 59 percent on third down. But in the last six games, the Vols made good on just 37 percent (28 of 75). The Vols were just 3-of-11 against Vanderbilt.

Cutcliffe blamed poor execution and getting whipped at the line of scrimmage on the misfires at Vanderbilt. That was a common theme the second half of the season.

``It's a matter of throwing and catching the ball and getting the ball to the right place,'' Cutcliffe said. ``You see a lot of different looks on third down. We work hard on that in practice. We don't have any excuse.

``It's one of the things, to be honest, I'm a little irritated about. We're not going to function at that level. We're going to be better than that because we're capable of being better than that.''

Cutcliffe said it's not much fun to go three-and-out on offense. That doesn't happen if you're converting on third down.

``That's how you stay on the field,'' Cutcliffe said. ``You don't know what the next play may bring. If you make a first down, you may score a touchdown. That's the next play that never happened. That's the way I view it. I don't like coming off the field and I hope these players don't either. Third down is a big issue. I'd like to be up above that 50 percent mark.''

Tennessee finished the regular season at 48 percent on third down.

EXTRA POINTS: Fulton High School star Dennis Rogan, a Tennessee commitment, said he has passed his ACT. He said he made 18 on his first attempt and will take it again to improve his score. He said he's OK with his core curriculum GPA. … The SEC Championship game loser has never played in the BCS, but the SEC has had three at-large teams make the BCS: Florida after the 1998 and 2001 seasons and Tennessee after the 1999 season. … UT assistant Steve Caldwell continues to prove he's been the Vols' best and most consistent recruiter over the past decade, landing athlete Gerald Jones of Oklahoma. Caldwell's other Oklahoma recruits: Robert Meachem, Marcus Nash, Jonathan Brown, and Chase Nelson.


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