KNOXVILLE — Luke Stocker’s senior season hasn’t started like he wanted.
It also hasn’t started like the University of Tennessee football team needed.
Stocker, a 6-foot-6, 253-pound tight end, is one of the Volunteers’ most experienced players and most noted NFL prospects. The Kentucky native could have left for the league after his junior season, but he and fiancé Daine Karst opted for one more year at UT.
Catching three passes for 19 yards — and just one pass for 2 yards from starting quarterback Matt Simms — through two games isn’t the start Stocker, his coaches, teammates and UT fans had in mind.
The Times Free Press caught up with Stocker after UT’s Monday practice, and the senior sounded off on several topics, including his slow start, his sore shoulder and his hope to beat 10th-ranked Florida for the first time in his five-year career.
Q: Why is the passing game struggling so much, especially with you and Matt Simms?
STOCKER: “It’s hard to say. You’ve got a new quarterback coming in, and we’re just getting used to him. It’s just everybody understanding where we’re going to be at the same time. It’s just not enough reps between me and him, and that’s basically what it is. We’re working on it, and we’re getting together.”
Q: Is your sore shoulder part of the problem?
STOCKER: “As far as me and Matt being on the same page, that has nothing to do with it.”
Q: Are you worried about the shoulder? Do you think it might bother you all season?
STOCKER: “No, I’m not worried about. It feels pretty good.”
Q: Obviously, those first two games had to be at least somewhat frustrating for you. How do you fight that frustration?
STOCKER: “You’ve just got to take all that negativity and frustration, and just put it out of your mind. You just move on to the next play and do it one play at a time. If you get caught up, it’s just a distraction to you, and that’s going to keep making it worse.”
Q: If memory serves, you had seven balls thrown your way against Tennessee-Martin but finished with just two catches. Did your lack of opportunities in the Oregon game have anything to do with all those missed opportunities in game 1?
STOCKER: “I think it was just the flow of the game that didn’t get me involved. I missed some practice last week because of my shoulder, and I think that kind of limited my part in the game plan, too.”
Q: Dooley has been critical of you at times since the start of preseason camp. How would you rate your performance to this point?
STOCKER: “I haven’t played up to my potential. I know that. I’ve talked to the coaches and everything. We’re trying to just get it going and get it rolling.”
Q: Is there a scheme problem? Are you having trouble buying in to a third system in three years? Obviously Jim Chaney is still the offensive coordinator, but we all know last season’s offense was Lane Kiffin’s offense.
STOCKER: “I really don’t know. I think it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to get over the hump. I feel like if I can have one good game and get involved in the game plan, that will just get things rolling in the right direction.”
Q: Will you practice all week with your shoulder issue? Are you back to — or anywhere near — 100 percent?
STOCKER: “I’m back. I’m practicing and everything. No limits for me this week.”
Q: The game plan against Oregon called for passes to the sideline. You seem to do your best work over the middle. Did you know you weren’t going to be a huge part of the passing game against the Ducks?
STOCKER: “I don’t get too consumed with the numbers and stuff. I just try to think positively and know that I can contribute in other ways.”
Q: That’s a smart answer, you wise, old, fifth-year senior.
Q: Let’s rephrase that, then: Did you know going into the Oregon game that your primary role might not be as a pass catcher?
STOCKER: “Yeah, a little bit. Our game plan last week was to go to the receivers on the outside — they play a lot of one-on-one, man-to-man coverage — and just let them make plays. And then I think the weather conditions might have pushed us more into a run-type offense. I’m not sure. But like I said earlier, I was limited in practice last week, and I think that kind of shrank my role in the game plan. We’ll see. We’re going to go to work this week, and hopefully I can get involved better.”
Q: You’re on the punt coverage team. Florida is always good in that area. They’ve burned you guys for several big returns recently. What does this team need to do to prevent that from happening again?
STOCKER: “We got a little bit of a look at them (Monday) in our scouting report. They like to line up in different things and try to confuse you a little bit and try to slow you down as a punt team so they can get more separation between their returner and the coverage team. That’s something we’ve got to handle, and we’ve got to recognize it and get out in coverage.”
Q: What would a win over Florida mean to this team, especially to you seniors who haven’t beaten the Gators?
STOCKER: “It would feel great. But I guess the mature way to look at it is (Monday) was the first step in getting prepared for them, and then (Tuesday) is the next step, and then so on and so forth. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it, just like you look at the next play and then the next play once you’re in practice. You’ve got to look at it day to day. And when Saturday gets here, we’ve just got to be prepared.”
Q: But you know I can’t talk to you on Thursday or Friday, so why don’t you just tell me how much it would mean to beat Florida, and I won’t run your answer until Saturday’s newspaper? Work with me here, man.
Q: OK, whatever. Surely you can answer this one on a Monday: What do you guys have to do beat Florida that you haven’t done in recent years?
STOCKER: “Offensively, we’ve got to play consistent. We’ve got to move the ball well, and when we get down in striking distance, we’ve got to put seven on the board instead of three. That’s what we’ve got to do.”