By Matt Dixon
KNOXVILLE - Sophomore tight end Mychal Rivera knew "stuff was on" the first play of Tennessee's football season.
Rivera returned the opening kickoff, a squib kick, 7 yards during the Volunteers' rout of UT-Martin.
"After that, you know, that's it," Rivera said after practice Tuesday.
Rivera has spent the first nine games of the season as the Vols' number two tight end while adjusting to his third college in three seasons. He spent last season at California's College of the Canyons after signing with Oregon out of high school.
"Much more comfortable, what are we in week nine now? Week nine, that's nine weeks of learning the offense and getting comfortable with everybody, getting comfortable with the quarterbacks, with the receivers and you know, getting to mesh," Rivera said. "I'm a lot more comfortable."
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Rivera has eight receptions for 62 yards this season and is coming off his best performance of the year against Memphis, where he caught three passes for 29 yards. UT's starting tight end, Luke Stocker, suffered a concussion late in the second quarter against the Tigers and must pass concussion tests to be cleared for Saturday's game against Ole Miss.
Rivera has approached this week the same way he has all year, despite getting more first-team reps in practice with Stocker out.
"You come with the same mindset every week that you are going to be the man," he said. "My friend always tells me, 'You're a deep breath away from being the number one guy no matter what.' So I try to prepare like that every week and just be ready for anything."
Wide receiver Gerald Jones said Rivera has practiced well all season.
"I've seen him all year work with the first team, and he's doing a good job," Jones said. "We've got a lot of plays where he's a big part of it, and I think he did pretty good today."
Regardless if Stocker plays Saturday, Rivera is optimistic about his future with the Vols.
"I feel ready good. I just know I need to get better, I always need to get better whatever I do," Rivera said. "I need to use this offseason to work on some things and come in next year and just try to be that guy."
Lincoln, Teague better
Senior kicker Daniel Lincoln and sophomore cornerback Marsalis Teague are both making strides in their recoveries from nagging injuries, and coach Derek Dooley is hopeful they will be ready for Saturday.
"Lincoln kicked today. He looked good," Dooley said.
Lincoln was 7-for-7 on field-goal attempts before a groin injury sidelined him the past five games.
"The guy hadn't missed a field goal, so I don't really want to shelf him for getting hurt," Dooley said. "Now as long as he looks good in practice. If he was a little shaky today, I might think about it. He nailed them; he looked good today."
Teague has been battling a turf toe injury he suffered in the Alabama game, sideling him the last two contests.
"He's moving better out there," Dooley said. "We're bringing him back, limiting him, but giving him more each day, and he looked a lot better today than he's ever looked, so hopefully he'll be ready to go."
This and that
Dooley was "incredibly pleased" with true freshman center James Stone against Memphis. Dooley was concerned that Stone and quarterback Tyler Bray would have "snap issues" in both players' first career start.
Dooley compared Stone to a rookie baseball player's success at the plate immediately after joining a major league club.
"Well, sometimes they hit that dip and you know, it's like that batter ... they bring him up in the bigs in May, he's stroking it, batting .400, everybody thinks he's the answer, and then all of a sudden [in] June, pitchers start throwing the curve[ball], they read the book on him and he's .089 in June, so, got to be careful," Dooley said. "It takes a long haul; it's a long haul."
Contact Matt Dixon at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.