KNOXVILLE — Moving up from third to second is a step Mychal Rivera believes he can take.
More than that, though, it's a step the Tennessee has to take in the Volunteers' passing game.
Rivera began the season as the third option for quarterback Tyler Bray, but star receiver Justin Hunter's season-ending knee injury figures to force the Vols to rely more on the 6-foot-3, 254-pound tight end.
"It's not too much change because we've got a lot of guys who can fill," Rivera said. "They can do their role.
"But personally I know I need to step up to fill that void."
After Hunter went down early in UT's loss at Florida 12 days ago, Bray targeted Rivera on 12 throws, which was only less than receiver Da'Rick Rogers' 14 targets. Receivers DeAnthony Arnett (11) and Zach Rogers also saw plenty of balls as the Vols abandoned their ineffective running game and entered catch-up mode.
Rivera caught five passes for 71 yards and an 18-yard touchdown against the Gators. His 11 catches in three games -- two games, really, after he was held without a catch in the season opener against Montana -- equaled his total from last season, when he played behind Luke Stocker.
With Stocker in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rivera had plenty of responsibility in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's offense entering the season. Now that responsibility is even greater.
"Opportunity's like this are what I've been waiting for my whole life," he said, "and it's just time for me to show up and make plays."
While Rivera has certainly had some hand in the collective struggles for UT's Southeastern Conference-worst ground game, he's been a valuable weapon for Bray in the pass game. Rivera's size allows him to work the short and intermediate zones in the middle of the field against linebackers or defensive backs.
"He's just got tremendous ball skills," tight ends coach Eric Russell said. "Not the fastest guy in the world, but you hope he's got a body to be able to body somebody up [and] he'll come down with it. He can make the tough catch.
"With Justin going down, obviously schematically we've got to do some things offensively and try to utilize him more because he has been productive the last couple of games in the throwing game."
The Vols were moving Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers around within the offense in an effort to exploit matchups and make things more difficult on opposing defenses. Rivera's skill set allows for the same concept, and the Vols use him at the end of the offensive line and split out wide.
"I think Mike's playing very good football for us right now," Chaney said, "and being able to move a tight end from the inside receiver to the outside receiver certainly puts more stress on the defense. You would like to think we sit up here and try to design a play to challenge the defense structurally, and that's what Mike lets us do."
What Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear, UT's two freshmen tight ends, must allow Rivera to do is catch his breath. Rivera played 66 snaps against Florida, which Russell simply called "too many."
Rivera, though, likely won't consider the opportunities he gets in UT's offense moving forward to be too high.
"As the season progresses," he said, "I'm really going to start to prove myself over and over again."
With the Vols' top option gone, he'll have to.
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 ...
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