KNOXVILLE -- The tight end position at the University of Tennessee may be a step behind where it was last year.
Mychal Rivera, though, believes he's taken multiple steps forward into the starting role.
"Me and [tight ends] Coach [Eric] Russell were actually looking at some film a couple of days ago of me from last year, and it's like night and day with my fundamentals and things I've learned over the last year," the junior said after practice Monday morning.
"I feel like I've come real far."
What's got head coach Derek Dooley worried, however, is what's behind Rivera. True freshmen Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear have struggled with learning one of the more difficult positions on the Volunteers' offense.
"They're at two and three [on the depth chart]," Dooley said. "They're freshmen; that's what they are. It's very encouraging in what they can do -- their skill sets, how they've been able to sustain here in camp -- but they've got a long way to go. They make a million mental errors, and it's not their fault really. It's just hard."
Downs arrived on campus in January and went through spring practice, which has given him a slight edge over the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Clear.
"The tight end position is pretty hard," Rivera said. "You've got to learn two different positions. You've got to learn the O-line [and] all the blocking schemes; then you have to learn the receivers, all the route concepts, all the coverages.
"It's a pretty hard position, but if you study your book and dedicate yourself you can get into it."
Rivera's biggest challenge is filling the shoes of Luke Stocker, who was a fourth-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dooley said earlier in camp that tight end was the lone spot he didn't feel better about from last season to this season.
"Obviously we don't have a Luke in the room anymore," Russell said last week. "I think the biggest thing we're tying to get these guys to understand, and Mike included, is what it means to play tight end at the University of Tennessee and what's expected of you in this offense.
"Really for Mike, what's got to happen is the transition to the details and the overall understanding of the whole concepts schematically and seeing things and reacting to things and concentrating more on the details ... and at the same time trying to groom those freshmen and bring those freshmen along fundamentally as well with the speed of the game and the tempo and the size of the people they're trying to block."
For the 6-3, 254-pound Rivera, who made 11 catches for 112 yards last season, the biggest adjustment has been developing consistency and becoming a more physical blocker. His greatest value to the Vols may come in the passing game as a reliable target for quarterback Tyler Bray on third downs.
"He's doing better and better," Dooley said. "I think he's going to be a good target for us in the pass game. He's not a deep threat, but he's a big target. He's athletic, he's got good hands, he's physical, so he can catch a lot of underneath throws and make some plays for us."
With what he learned from Stocker last season and a full year under his belt, Rivera has a comfort level in UT's complex position.
"I feel the pressure," he said, "but I really like it and I really appreciate what I've molded into. I'm ready for the season."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.