Mychal Rivera, a 6-4, 240-pound transfer from College of the Canyons Junior College, is no threat to unseat preseason All-SEC pick Luke Stocker as the Vols' No. 1 tight end. Still, Rivera is playing well enough this preseason to make his head coach notice.
"Mike's doing good," Derek Dooley said following Friday's practice. "He's our second tight end. He's getting better every day. He's kind of a solid guy. He doesn't wow you at anything but he's getting better at everything. He's blocking a lot better and he can make some plays in the passing game, so we're glad he's here."
Rivera is glad he's here, too. He believes he has made tremendous strides since preseason camp began two weeks ago.
"I feel I'm doing great right now," he said. "Fall camp is now over and I'm starting to get in the football season groove - fully in shape, head's in the playbook and the ball's starting to roll.
"It's really different from fall camp because fall camp was getting in shape and trying to learn things. Now I've done all of that."
Jumping from high school football to major college ball is a tough adjustment. Rivera says the jump from juco ball to college ball is no piece of cake, either.
"The biggest adjustment has been the speed," he said. "The SEC speed is real hard to adjust to (because of so many) big, fast guys. Now that I've gotten used to that, it's a matter of staying in shape, staying healthy and physically doing everything I can to make plays."
Tennessee uses its tight ends in a variety of ways. Rivera says he was utilized much the same at College of the Canyons, however.
"Similar. Very similar ways," he said. "Junior college had me split out in the slot, tight end position, fullback going in motion - and I'm doing all of the same things here.... There's always similarities. Football's football. It's different (in some ways) but I'm in the groove now."
There is one significant difference between Tennessee's attack and the one he played in last fall.
"I'm going from a spread offense to more of a power pro-style offense here," he said. "It's a little more banging (blocking) but I got used to it."
Head coach Derek Dooley has made no secret of his fondness for two-tight end sets. Naturally, that makes Vol tight ends very happy.
"It sounds really good," Rivera said. "The two-tight end system is great. Luke is teaching me a lot, and we're trying to go out there and make plays together."
Stocker caught 29 passes last fall and led all SEC tight ends with a 13.4 yards-per-catch average. Rivera couldn't have a better role model.
"He's teaching me techniques, teaching me tricks," Rivera said. "You can just go down the line, and he's taught me it. He's taught me a lot. He's a real good mentor."
The biggest lesson Rivera learned from Stocker was visual, not verbal.
"I watch his work ethic when he's in and I'm out," Rivera said. "I'm a player while I'm off the field, and his work ethic is really good. He doesn't take a play off. He always grinds, so I like to study him."
Minus a quarterback who threw for 2,800 yards (Jonathan Crompton), a tailback who rushed for 1,345 yards (Montario Hardesty) and all five starters from the 2009 offensive line, Tennessee's offense projects to be mediocre this season. Rivera isn't buying it. He has too much faith in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
"This offense is great," Rivera said. "Coach Chaney is The Man."