A rising Stocker

When Lane Kiffin flew the coop last January, Tennessee's top tight end knew he'd be learning a new scheme for the fall of 2010. He just didn't know if it would be a college scheme or a pro scheme.

Coming off an excellent junior season that included 29 receptions and a sparkling 13.4 yards-per-catch average, Luke Stocker had a decision to make: Should he declare for the NFL Draft or should he play one more year of college ball?

Recognizing how high the stakes were, Stocker took his time and tried to assess the situation from every possible angle.

"I just wanted to wait and see how the coaching change played out ... who we got in, whether Coach (Jim) Chaney was staying or not (as offensive coordinator)," Stocker recalled. "I prayed about it. I really didn't have a lot of direction about it. I just kind of waited to see."

The decision was far from easy. He got good vibes from new UT head man Derek Dooley, who emphasized the importance of the tight end in his offensive scheme. But Stocker also got good vibes from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.

"I got a third- to fourth-round grade," he recalled. "Hopefully, I'll have a good year this year and bump up to a first- or second-round grade, make a lot more money."

Several pro scouts suggested Stocker can do just that by fine-tuning a few weaknesses in his senior season with the Vols.

"Coach Chaney talked to a couple of guys who said (improving) my in-line blocking and my footwork technique and some stuff like that is really going to help my stock improve," Stocker noted.

Ultimately, the prospect of playing in a Vol offense that prominently features the tight end made returning to UT just too attractive to pass up.

"At the end of the day," Stocker said, "my gut decision was to come back, and that's what I did."

No one is happier about that decision than Dooley, who believes a tight end with Stocker's combination of size (6-6, 253) and receiving skills can be a real weapon in the Vol arsenal.

"There's no question that Luke has a lot of ability," Dooley said. "He's got good size. He's got the right competitive character, and he's produced. He's one of those few guys that has shown good production.

"I think he's going to play an important role in our offense. The key is going to be, who behind Luke is going to be effective and productive? I'd like to have three or four guys who can do what Luke does. But right now Luke's what we've got. He's good, and we're going to use him."

Stocker is better than good; he's exceptional. Eight of his 29 catches last fall gained 20 yards or better. Five of the catches produced touchdowns.

So, what was the key to his breakout season?

"I think just getting comfortable in the offense, building my confidence as an individual," he said. "That went a long way."

After catching just 13 balls as a sophomore, reeling in 29 as a junior has Stocker feeling awfully good about his prospects as a senior.

"I have a lot of confidence right now," he said. "It's a great feeling."

Dooley's promise of a beefy role for the tight end apparently wasn't a ruse designed to convince Stocker to stick around another year. The head coach has continued spreading that message this spring.

"I like tight ends in our offense," Dooley said. "Philosophically, the biggest change I see is moving more toward tight ends than fullbacks."

Naturally, such comments are music to Stocker's ears.

"That's great ... huge," he said. "I want to do anything I can to help this team win. If that's blocking every play, that's fine with me. If I'm running seam routes and catching 40-yard passes every play, that's great, too. I just want to win, man."

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