Brent Brewer looks back at Tuesday's scrimmage and ahead to Saturday's
Tucked away in a far corner of Haslam Field on Thursday, Tennessee's tight ends were yards away from the passing and catching that was hogging the spotlight of the open viewing period.
The everyday blocking drill wasn't exactly must-see TV, but it had the attention of coach Derek Dooley, who barked instructions at UT's three tight ends as he engrossed himself in the exercise.
It was clear he had the group's full attention.
"Coach Dooley coached tight ends in the NFL," junior starter Mychal Rivera said, referring to Dooley's two years under Nick Saban with the Miami Dolphins. "Anytime he comes over there, your ears perk up a little bit."
Dooley was with the tight ends for an extended period of time Thursday, Rivera said. After a scrimmage in which Rivera nabbed just one pass for 6 yards, freshmen Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear went without a catch and the offense, as a whole, struggled to generate consistent yards on the ground, the unit had plenty of work to do.
"Tight end's a hard position in our offense," Dooley said. "You have to probably understand conceptually the offense better than any player except the quarterback. You've got to understand the run game schematics, you've got to understand the protection schemes like a running back and you've got to understand the routes concepts like a receiver.
"We put a lot on the tight end, and it's hard on them. They're struggling."
On top of that, it's one of the few areas on the team where Dooley, as he noted last week, doesn't feel better about than he did at this point last season.
Departed senior Luke Stocker was the Vols' highest pick in the 2011 NFL Draft for a reason. In his final two years at UT, Stocker was a major weapon in the Vols' passing attack, compiling more than 800 receiving yards and grabbing seven touchdowns.
In his senior season, Stocker was a lot of things that Rivera, Downs and Clear aren't, simply because they don't have the seasoning.
That hasn't influenced Dooley to shy away from criticizing the group.
Asked if Downs and Clear "showed up" after Tuesday's scrimmage, Dooley jokingly confirmed that the players were, in fact, at the scrimmage and said he was "usually screaming at them." Asked about Rivera on Thursday, Dooley said his projected starter had been "a little inconsistent."
"He shows flashes that he can be a really good tight end for us, and then he kind of goes in some funks where he makes some mistakes," Dooley said. "His challenge is to be able to perform at the level he's capable of performing all the time."
Rivera's focus from the spring to the summer didn't change. Route-running and increasing his strength were at the top of his to-do list, as he hoped both would help him build off the 11 catches for 112 yards he compiled as a junior-college transfer sophomore last season.
Right tackle Ju'Wuan James, though, has noticed a more cerebral Rivera when he crouches next to him on the offensive line.
"He's studying a lot more," James said. "He knows a lot of his stuff, the calls. He's helping me out on calls and I help him."
At the beginning of camp, the young UT offensive line infamously set a goal to make running back Tauren Poole the first running back in SEC history to run for 2,000 yards. To even sniff that lofty standard, there will have to be contributions coming from more than just the tackles, guards and center, James said.
Sometimes, as center James Stone said Thursday, the key block that spawns a long touchdown run comes from the tight end. That's why Rivera, even when he and his fellow tight ends are tucked away on another part of the practice field, is considered one of the guys with the tight-knit offensive linemen.
"We try to get Mike in there with us now just so he can know what's up," Stone said. "We've got to bring Mike along with the run blocking because he's used to being a tight end and running routes."