The first test is in the books for the Vols after a 35-21 victory over NC State on Friday night. The explosive big plays were there. The aggression on defense was improved.
Still, there are areas the Vols will certainly be looking to improve as they face Georgia State next Saturday, and then prepare for the first SEC game against Florida the following week.
Here’s a full report card from the Vols’ performance Friday night:
Quarterback: Grade: A–
He wasn’t perfect, but Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray looked to be back to his old form on Friday. He completed 27 of 41 passes for 333 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and was sacked just once. He was sloppy on a few intermediate throws, and he lost a fumble on the 1-yard line. However, deep balls to Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers were a big reason for the Vols’ offensive success.
Running backs: C+
After a strong fall camp, starting running back Rajion Neal struggled Friday night. He finished with 63 yards on 22 yards, an average of just 2.4 yards per carry. The biggest concern with Neal was that he tried to bounce too many plays to the outside instead of running north and south. Marlin Lane, who entered the game as the third-team running back, was the pleasant surprise. He had nine carries for 78 yards, including a 42-yard burst that helped seal the win for the Vols. In total, the backs rushed for only 119 carries on 33 carries.
Wide receivers/tight ends: A
The loss of Da’Rick Rogers proved to be no problem Friday night. Patterson and Zach Rogers both beat NC State’s All-American cornerback David Amerson for touchdown receptions of 41 and 72 yards, respectively. Justin Hunter had one key fourth-down drop, but overall looked strong in his return from a torn ACL with nine receptions for 73 yards. Ben Bartholomew did an admirable job helping out at tight end. Tight end Mychal Rivera had one catch, but his snaps were limited. He doesn’t appear fully recovered from his preseason knee sprain.
Offensive line: B–
The pass protection deserves better. Bray was sacked only one time, and he had plenty of time to throw. There still wasn’t a lot of push in the run game. It opened a gaping hole for Lane’s long run, but that was about it. Though the team rushed for 191 total yards, much of that came from Cordarrelle Patterson’s two reverse runs and the one run from Lane. There were also two early false starts from first-time starter Tiny Richardson.
Defensive line: B
There was only one sack to show for it, but the defensive front got after NC State quarterback Mike Glennon. Defensive ends Maurice Couch and Darrington Sentimore were especially active. There were some missed tackles, but overall, limiting the NC State run game to 149 yards on 32 carries is a win. It deserves some credit for helping force Glennon into four interceptions.
Like the defensive line, this unit was active in creating pressure and showed a lot of versatility as well. Jacques Smith and Curt Maggitt both were comfortable playing in space and rushing the passer more like a defensive end. One big concern is senior Herman Lathers. He left the game in the second half with a shoulder injury. Though the injury does not appear to be serious, the Vols are thin at inside linebacker and can’t afford to lose him for any amount of time.
It was all or nothing for the secondary. There were numerous blown coverages that led to big chunks of yardage for the Wolfpack. There were also four interceptions after having only nine in 2011. Communication will need to improve between the cornerbacks and safeties, but credit this unit for being opportunistic and making play when the Vols needed them.
Special teams: B+
Michael Palardy missing the first extra point of the season wasn’t a good sight, but the Vols were improved overall on special teams. Matt Darr’s punting was improved, as evidenced by his career-long 51-yard punt. Coverage was strong, and Palardy did hit his two field-goal attempts. Devrin Young continues to be a reliable return man. He fielded all the punts cleanly and had an impressive 35-yard kickoff return to set the Vols up with good field position on the first drive of the game.
There were some typical first-game mistakes, but the staff had the Vols ready to play. Credit the coaches for finding ways to showcase Patterson, and for having the defense well adjusted to the new scheme. The calls were aggressive on both sides of the ball, and they had a gameplan in place to go for the win, as opposed to playing not to lose. The Vols committed only one turnover (Bray’s fumble, which was a close call), only 35 yards in penalties, they tackled well and executed most everything called. The run game still needs some work and defensive communication can improve, but there were many signs of a well-prepared team Friday night.