Passing game pluses

Some football teams miss the boat by failing to utilize their fullbacks and tight ends for anything more than blocking. Clearly, the Tennessee Vols are not one of those teams.

The tight ends, coached by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and the fullbacks, overseen by running backs coach Eddie Gran, have been invaluable parts of the Big Orange air attack this fall.

Junior tight end Luke Stocker caught 27 passes for 370 yards during the regular season, averaging a whopping 13.7 yards per catch. His role in the offense grew almost on a weekly basis. After making just four receptions for 33 yards (8.2 per catch) in the first four games, he made 23 grabs for 337 yards (14.6 per catch) over the next eight outings. He also finished with five touchdown catches, trailing only wideout Denarius Moore (six) in that category.

Stocker finished with a flourish, catching a season-high five passes in Game 11 vs. Vanderbilt, then matching that total in Game 12 at Kentucky. The 6-6, 240-pounder also posted his season high for receiving yards (78) vs. the Wildcats.

"Luke Stocker may be our best receiver," receivers coach Frank Wilson said recently. "We're going to continue trying to find ways to get him involved and get the ball to him. I think that was very important - to have a tight end who evolved the way he has, as well as our fullback."

Lane Kiffin thinks so, too.

"Luke is playing extremely well," Tennessee's head coach said. "He's all over the place, making big-time plays."

Backup tight end Jeff Cottam contributed just three catches all season but gained 41 yards and also averaged 13.7 per catch. Cottam, who did not catch a pass in 2008, also registered his second career TD reception in '09.

"To see Jeff catch the second touchdown pass of his career was really neat at Ole Miss," Kiffin said. "Coach Chaney has really done a great job at that position with those guys. They've really played well and continued improving."

Tennessee also has made great use of fullbacks Kevin Cooper and Austin Johnson in the passing game. Cooper registered 12 catches for 110 yards, with a touchdown catch in Game 8 vs. South Carolina and a season-best 23-yard reception in Game 11 vs. Vandy.

Johnson wrapped up regular-season play with six receptions for 68 yards, a hefty average of 11.3 per catch. After catching just one ball for 8 yards in the first five games, he caught five passes for 55 yards (11.0 per catch) in the next seven games. Johnson had a 38-yard touchdown catch in Game 8 against South Carolina and two receptions in Game 10 at Ole Miss.

Tennessee's ability to utilize its fullbacks as weapons in the passing game was crucial to its offensive growth in 2009. The added threat made the Vols less predictable and more difficult to defend.

"Now you're not just on the perimeter; you have to take care of the middle of the field, as well as the flat area with the fullback," Wilson noted. "It gives us more weapons to be able to throw to our fullbacks and our tight ends. We're very pleased and excited that those guys are able to contribute in the passing game."

Kiffin has always found creative ways to utilize his fullbacks and tight ends, dating to his days as offensive coordinator at Southern Cal in the mid-2000s.

"This offense always had tight ends and fullbacks involved in it at Southern Cal," Wilson said. "It just took us a little while for us to get to the point where those guys were more involved in it."

Kiffin agreed, noting that the fullbacks were especially inconsistent in September but developed into dependable threats as the season wore on.

"The fullbacks have been up and down," he said. "They started the season well, then we went through a two-game spell where they didn't play that well. We really challenged them to play better. They responded well and made some big catches."

And, thanks to the big catches by the tight ends and fullbacks in recent weeks, Tennessee will be catching a bowl bid in the next few days.

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