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The lights were on.
The pressure was cranked up on fourth-and-16.
The ball was a bullet, and it took a little extra effort for Mychal Rivera to get his hands on it as he dived, stretched and ultimately absorbed some contact before hauling it in.
Considering the circumstances and the athleticism required, there was little doubt the Tennessee tight end had just produced the finest catch of his career last weekend in a 20-12 loss to Georgia. But as he prepares for a possible encore to his clutch grab against No. 1 LSU at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.), Rivera offered a reminder that he's capable of making even tougher receptions — and might have already done it.
"That was probably a 9 (out of 10)," Rivera said. "I hope to one day make those catches that are 10s and stuff, but that was a 9. That was a pretty hard catch and I was pretty proud that I made that catch.
"But I've had 9s and 10s, you guys just haven't seen them yet. Those are at practice. You guys haven't seen them yet."
There aren't many highlight reels produced from practices, though teammates and coaches have verified that Rivera has done some head-turning work behind closed doors with the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) in his second season with the program.
The junior also has developed into one of UT's best weapons in the passing game heading into the meeting with the top-ranked Tigers (6-0, 3-0 SEC), with his late, leaping reception to keep the offense and the game alive down the stretch against the Bulldogs helping prove that.
Needing 16 yards for a first down, Rivera ran a seam route past a linebacker on the left side of the formation, angled back to the middle of the field with quarterback Matt Simms trying to hit him near the goal line and got nearly parallel with the field as he reached for the football and braced for contact. The hit was delivered, but it wasn't enough to jar the ball loose, giving Simms a chance to punch in a sneak for a short touchdown and Rivera a signature play somewhere other than the practice field.
"The ball is in the air, he'll compete for it," special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Eric Russell said. "He's got very good hands, he really does have unbelievable hands.
"He made a couple catches here in fall camp that were ridiculous. But, I don't know, that fourth-and-16 was a good one. He's made a couple different ones in here, though, so I might agree he's had better. The thing is, that one was when things counted. I'd say that one was a little more spectacular."
Rivera had four others and finished with 85 yards in the defeat to the Bulldogs, and while they didn't come with the same degree of difficulty, they were just as valuable to a UT offense still looking for options with wide receiver Justin Hunter out for the season and a running game that hasn't generated much of anything.
After getting shut out on the stats sheet in the season opener, Rivera has responded with 19 catches for 248 yards with a touchdown over the last four games. And with Da'Rick Rogers drawing extra attention from defenses and Rivera proving he can handle the work, his role figures to keep expanding.
"I think it was the best game he's had since he's been at Tennessee, but I don't think it was all purely the catches," Russell said. "We asked him to handle some people in protection and he did it. He's picked up the protection game, he did some nice things in the run game, so he's starting to get there.
"He's not perfect. He still makes some mental errors in some things and things like that, but he's working on it. You can see it, he comes out to work every day in practices to get better."
That has apparently been the site of some of his finest efforts with the Vols, but they are starting to spill over into games now.