KNOXVILLE – Quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson get much of the attention on Tennessee’s offense.
There’s good reason for that. Bray leads the SEC in completions (118), passing yards (1582) and touchdowns (14). Hunter (456 yards) and Patterson (290 yards) are both in the top-10 in the league in receiving.
But an increasing number of supporting players are making their mark on offense. It’s become a necessity with opposing teams scheming more and more to limit Patterson and Hunter’s big-play capability.
"It was pretty clear that Georgia didn't want us to beat them by throwing over the top with CP (Patterson) and Justin (Hunter),” coach Derek Dooley said. “So when they are playing guys that high, it means that you have to run the ball and spread the ball out underneath, and the guys did a good job.”
Dooley has specifically mentioned tight end Mychal Rivera, receiver Zach Rogers and running back Rajion Neal this week as three players that have helped take some of the pressure off of the big three on offense. Rivera leads all SEC tight ends with 14 receptions for 255 yards, while Rogers also has 14 grabs for 249 yards.
Neal has drawn praise for how well he’s run the ball the last two weeks, but his pass-catching ability out of the backfield is an underrated aspect of the Vols’ offense. He has 13 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns on the season. He had his best receiving day of the season against Georgia with five receptions for 53 yards and a touchdown.
"All of our guys have done well out of the backfield,” running backs coach Jay Graham said. “Rajion has really good hands and he is good at running routes, so he can put them in some mismatch situations on linebacker some times. He is a good route runner.”
Added Neal: "Some of them were by design, some of them were just hot reads and check downs. It just goes back to Bray giving me an opportunity just to get out in the open field and make some plays."
Despite the development of some key secondary targets, the Vols continue to look for a few more players who can to their overall offensive depth. Freshman wide receiver Pig Howard is one player drew the praise of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney this week.
Howard has only three receptions for 16 yards on the season, but he’s played in just two full games – Akron and Georgia – because of a broken foot he sustained in the preseason. He was a regular on the field at Georgia when the Vols went with a four-wide formation.
"From my perspective it is fun that I don't have a flea in there anywhere that I can't throw the ball to,” Chaney said.
Weekend off: After three physical practices this week, and a workout session on Friday, the Vols will be given the whole bye weekend off from any team-related activities.
"Sometimes it's better to keep going and your body just adjusts and you keep pushing," said Dooley."Sometimes you need (the rest). I don't know if it's going to help us or not. We will find out.”
The Vols focused on general fundamentals on Tuesday and Wednesday, and they began prepping specifically for their next opponent, Mississippi State, on Thursday.
More McCullers on passing downs: Nose tackle Daniel McCullers had been mostly limited to running situations only through the first four games of the season. Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri left him on the field in some passing situations against Georgia.
It’s a trend that Sunseri would like to see continue.
"We have to get him out there as much as we can because he has done a great job and we have to keep pushing him and make him understand that he has a heck of a lot of ability,” Sunseri said. “We just have to keep force feeding it to him and make him play every down that he can because he is a force out there."
Bray’s draft status falling?: That’s what at least one NFL Draft analyst thinks after Bray completed 24-of-41 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions and one costly fumble at Georgia.
“Bray has the tendency to be a loose cannon and has too much belief in his arm, subscribing to the belief that no passing window is too small,” CBSSports.com draft analyst Dane Brugler wrote. “He also showed poor ball security, often holding the ball one-handed near his hip and fumbling late in game. He has the arm strength to make any throw he wants and tosses a beautiful deep ball, but the inconsistency is really hurting him and his team.”
Brugler listed Bray as one of his three NFL Draft "fallers" based on last week. You can read his full assessment of Bray here.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.