Tennessee's struggles over the past three years can be documented in a number of ways, and the NFL Draft is certainly among them: for a program that once trailed only Miami and Florida State in active NFL players, Tennessee has had only eight players drafted in the last three years, and will send only two to the NFL Combine this week.
However, the Vols do have an active run of five straight years with a first round pick (Jason Allen, Justin Harrell & Robert Meachem, Jerod Mayo, Robert Ayers, Eric Berry & Dan Williams). If that's going to continue this year, Luke Stocker needs to have a really good week at the combine.
Stocker - a 6'5", 255 lbs tight end - is currently listed as the second best TE in the draft by both NFL.com and Scouts Inc, behind Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph. Even if he doesn't go in the first round, he should certainly go high enough to have a chance to contribute somewhere right away. It's an impressive accomplishment for a player who worked with three different head coaches and four different play callers during his Tennessee career.
Stocker's numbers improved throughout his career; after a 29 catch, 5 TD performance in 2009, many of us believed he was in for a huge year in 2010. As the Vols struggled early with Matt Simms and a brand new offensive line, Stocker had to stay patient - he got only 19 catches in the Vols' first seven games. When Tennessee transitioned to Tyler Bray, everything improved in the passing game: Stocker finished with 20 catches in the final six games, and his last two performances: 5 for 55 against Kentucky, 5 for 58 and a touchdown against North Carolina - gave him a strong finish. Stocker took that momentum to the Senior Bowl, where he was one of the most impressive players in practice.
Stocker is plenty big and has good hands, shaking off a few drops early this season to become one of the Vols' most reliable targets. His overtime TD catch against North Carolina was the last of several big plays he made, including this catch against Alabama in 2009 on the final drive. He contributed all four years in Knoxville, catching a touchdown in the Vols' four overtime win at Kentucky in 2007, and finished his career by jumping over and running through Kentucky players in this year's game. He follows in the footsteps of Jason Witten at Tennessee, and with a strong combine should give himself a chance to see playing time right away, in hopes of following in his footsteps in the NFL.
The flash in Tennessee's passing game this year truly belonged to Denarius Moore. Gerald Jones caught more passes - 55 for 596 yards - but Moore had almost four hundred more yards on fewer receptions, catching 47 balls for 981 yards. Moore, like Stocker, has been a contributor at Tennessee his entire career, but really shined the last two seasons. He caught 40 passes and 7 touchdowns in 2009, including this incredible display of athleticism against Georgia.
But in 2010, no one benefitted more from Tyler Bray's arrival than Moore. In the first seven games Moore caught 18 passes for 257 yards. Once Bray took over, Moore became his favorite downfield target: Consider all the great players who have caught passses here at what used to be called Wide Receiver U: Tim McGee, Carl Pickens, Alvin Harper, Peerless Price, Cedrick Wilson, Donte Stallworth, Robert Meachem, plus guys like Joey Kent and Marcus Nash that played with Peyton Manning. Out of all of those and countless more, Denarius Moore became the first player in Tennessee history to have two 200+ yard receiving games in his Tennessee career.
And he did it five weeks apart: 6 for 228 against South Carolina, 7 for 205 against Kentucky.
It's not fair to call him a product of Bray's play, because that's still a freshman quarterback behind a freshman offensive line - Tyler Bray ain't Peyton Manning yet. Instead, Bray gave Tennessee permission to throw the deep ball...and gave Moore a chance to go get it. After 18 catches for 257 yards in the first seven games, Moore finished with 29 catches for 724 yards in the final six. That's 25 yards per reception with Bray.
The wide receiver field is crowded in this year's NFL Draft, top to bottom, and Moore is listed as the 24th best WR by Scouts Inc. He won't stand out physically, but he is clearly a threat on the deep ball, and perhaps his speed and hands will show up this week. Moore is the biggest playmaker the Vols have had since Robert Meachem - he deserves a chance, and this week he's going to get it.
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