KNOXVILLE — It's easy to lose Mychal Rivera with everything else going on with Tennessee's offense.
The senior hopes opposing defenses do the same.
Three gifted receivers are generating hype that's still crescendoing. There's a heated competition at tailback and offensive line with a chip on its shoulder. Tyler Bray is getting the attention typical of a Volunteers quarterback.
What about the tight end?
"Everybody can forget about me, except for Tyler," Rivera said last week with a laugh.
If UT's receiver trio of Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson lives up to its billing, Rivera could find himself consistently open on underneath routes against linebackers or safeties. He called playing with such a cast the "best chance" of his career. But Rivera knows there's more to his role.
The Vols' tight-end depth took a hit with sophomore Cameron Clear's summer dismissal following arrest, which left sophomore Brendan Downs and freshman Justin Meredith, who missed spring practice with a hamstring injury, as Rivera's backups. Fifth-year senior Ben Bartholomew, who started seven games at fullback in 2011, has been working at tight end during the first three training-camp practices as the Vols shift their offense to their personnel.
Rivera said Downs, a solid receiver with improved physicality, "really stepped up" after Clear's exit. The loss caused Rivera to kick it up a notch, too. His high snap count from last year was a concern for UT, and Rivera, now a leaner 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, wanted to reverse that.
"I understood that I had to get my physical shape in the top condition, and that's what I am right now," he said. "I'm ready to go as many plays as I can. I just didn't feel my physical condition was up to what it needed to be, and finally this summer and this spring I dedicated myself and finally got my physical physique to where I needed to be."
Rivera knows that was needed to get UT back to where it's expected to be.
"I was actually looking at highlights of the '98 [championship] team the other day, and I feel like that's a lot of guys' dreams on this team to bring Tennessee back," he said. "We do talk about that a lot. We know in order to do that we have to work hard and we've got to win these games."
UT practiced in pads for the first time in training camp on Sunday, and the consensus was the offense took the day. Coach Derek Dooley praised the efforts of both the running backs and offensive line. UT finished 116th nationally in rushing last season.
"[The offensive line] looked like a bunch of guys that had been kicked around for seven months and wanted to do something about it," he said. "[The tailbacks] ran the ball really well, hit the holes and then when they got in the secondary, they didn't stop. They had a little something to keep moving, and Jay [Graham's] done a good job of trying to coach that."
The other side
Stopping the run was one of Dooley's defensive concerns exiting spring practice, and defensive end Marlon Walls said Sunday showed that UT's defense needs better execution as it continues to learn coordinator Sal Sunseri's new defense.
"Sal's defense is great, and we're enjoying ourselves," the senior said. "We've got to do a better job of executing, but he's putting us in the right spot to make plays so we're excited. Sal's going to get it out of you, and we're looking forward to getting it corrected.
Sunseri said the defense neared its goal of 80-percent installation in the spring, and that process is continuing during the early portions of camp.
"We put a lot more plays in," Walls said. "As long as you've got the concepts down in this defense, you understand what the guy next to you is doing. We're more used to what Sal likes to do."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...