AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Consider it the equivalent of leaving a Ferrari in the garage.
Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson established himself as one of the nation's most electrifying performers as soon as the Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College transfer scored on a 41-yard reception and a 67-yard run against North Carolina State in his Division I debut. But until last week, Patterson was an extraordinary player with relatively ordinary receiving statistics.
That's no longer the case. Patterson collected nine receptions for 219 yards and a touchdown Saturday in a 55-48 victory over Troy. He had caught a total of 10 passes in the five games leading up to that one.
"When you're watching him, it's like playing the NCAA Football video game on rookie level," Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said. "He's special, man. Anytime you get the ball in his hands, you don't know what's going to happen."
Patterson's increased production has resulted from an improved work ethic. He will try to deliver a repeat performance Saturday against Missouri.
"We got on him a lot with his practice habits, getting that timing with (quarterback) Tyler (Bray)," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "He made a really conscious decision to practice better last week. I told him on Thursday, 'You practiced great this week, and it's going to pay off in the game.' I had no doubts. And it paid off. Hopefully he will do it again.
After catching a combined 17 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns through Tennessee's first three games of the season, Patterson totaled 10 receptions for 127 yards and one touchdown over the Vols' next five contests. He didn't catch more than three passes or accumulate more than 31 receiving yards in any of those five games.
Patterson arrived at Tennessee as an unpolished receiver, though the 6-foot-3 junior's combination of size and athleticism makes him a potential first-round draft pick. Patterson believes he's come a long way since the start of the season.
"I think I've improved a lot," Patterson said. "I go back and watch film from the first couple of weeks and watch now, and it's a big change, just in running my routes, getting downfield and getting open."
Patterson says he never got frustrated by his lack of catches.
"If you're letting frustrated, that means you're just being selfish," Patterson said. "I'm not a selfish person."
Tennessee's coaching staff has done everything possible to get Patterson more opportunities, whether by handing him the ball or using him on special teams. Patterson leads the SEC with 1,292 all-purpose yards.
Patterson is the nation's eighth-leading kickoff returner with an average of 31.5 yards per attempt, but many teams stopped aiming kicks in his direction after he brought one back 98 yards for a touchdown against Mississippi State last month. Patterson also has rushed for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 18 carries.
His mere presence as a receiver has prevented teams from focusing on fellow wideout Justin Hunter and has created plenty of pass-catching opportunities for Zach Rogers. But he can help out a lot more when the ball's in his hands. Patterson has 36 catches for 585 yards and four touchdowns this season and ranks eighth in the SEC with 65 receiving yards per game.
Every time he touches the ball, Patterson is capable of delivering a highlight-worthy play. Whenever the ball was thrown his way last week, Patterson made Troy's defense look helpless with a dizzying array of moves.
"He's probably one of the best open-field runners in college football," Tennessee tailback Marlin Lane said. "Somebody tackling him one-on-one, I don't think is going to happen, because I saw Saturday that 11 people can't tackle him."
In the second quarter against Troy, Patterson caught a 7-yard pass, ran around one defender near the sideline and juked his way around seven more Trojans on a 41-yard gain. Later in that period, he delivered a 37-yard gain in which he caught a pass at the Tennessee 38, spun away from a defender across the middle of the field, maintained his balance and cut between two more defenders. He then did a 360 to shed linebacker Mark Wilson's attempted tackle and then broke free from cornerback Bryan Willis, who was trying to grab him by the ankle.
Just before halftime, Patterson weaved his way around virtually the entire Troy defense to turn a 13-yard completion into a 58-yard gain.
Many receivers would feel lucky to have three plays of that type in their entire career. Patterson produced them all in one quarter.
"It's just instinct," Patterson said. "I just don't want anybody to tackle me, so I try to get off the tackle and get in the end zone."
That plan worked quite well last week. The Vols hope it produces similar results the rest of the season.
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