KNOXVILLE – It wasn’t the career that 13 Tennessee seniors dreamed of when they signed with former coach Phillip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin or Derek Dooley.
But Saturday’s 37-17 victory over Kentucky was a sweet ending for the group.
“With everything that was happening off the field and everybody talking about coach Dooley getting fired and all that, we just had to pull together,” said senior left guard Dallas Thomas, the most experienced departing player. “We were mature enough to bring the young guys along.”
Statistically speaking, multiple seniors were able to go out with memorable games. Tight end Mychal Rivera led the team with five receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Zach Rogers made his seventh touchdown grab of the season on a 21-yard strike from quarterback Tyler Bray.
Safety Rod Wilks earned his most extensive playing time at safety, seldom-used offensive linemen Carson Anderson and Darin Gooch got some playing time at the end and fullback Ben Bartholomew, normally used as a blocker, got his first two career carries for a total of 10 yards.
“Some of the guys on the team were talking to me about it, and I was excited about it, if we had that opportunity to get it done,” said Bartholomew, who also had one reception for 13 yards. “I was just really thankful to get into the game.”
Interim head coach Jim Chaney was proud of the work the seniors put in during a difficult week in the midst of the dismissal of Derek Dooley last Sunday.
Chaney, the longest current tenured coach at Tennessee, was on a staff that signed four of the graduating seniors – Rivera, Gooch, Rogers and cornerback Marsalis Teague.
“I couldn’t have been happier with the way the game finished for the senior class,” Chaney said. “They were very good with me all week, the 13 kids who were playing their final game. It was emotional for them on Friday night as we let them speak to the team.
“And I couldn’t be more pleased when they came out today, and the team gathered around one another to get a victory for Tennessee and for the senior class. I’m pretty pleased that that happened.”
Chaney impressive as interim: Though obviously a skewed statistic, Chaney will go down as the winningest head coach, percentage-wise, in program history after his 1-0 stint.
Saturday was Chaney’s first opportunity to be a head coach at the collegiate level.
“It was wonderful,” Chaney said. “It was fun. There were things that pop up that you never think about when you’re sitting there, and I admire the qualities of the people that do it. I admireDerek Dooley more than I could ever tell you, and he’s a good man.”
Chaney will have to wait to find out if he’ll have an opportunity to be retained by the next head coach. The odds say that the new coach will want to bring in his own coordinators, but Chaney is willing to wait and see what happens.
“The gentleman that they hire, that’s his job to make those decisions,” he said. “Personally, my family and I really enjoy Knoxville. We love the University of Tennessee and if that opportunity comes up, we’d love to discuss that. But that’s whoever they end up hiring’s decision.”
Juniors quiet on NFL decision: Saturday might have been the last game for juniors Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and right tackle Ja’Wuan James, all of whom are considered potential high picks in the 2013 NFL Draft.
All four were quiet about their future plans, saying they would take time to rest after the season and see who the new coach is before making a final decision.
“We are just happy we got the win and finished strong,” Patterson said. “When that decision comes, we will see what is best for us.”
. Cornerbacks Eric Gordon, Daniel Gray and Deion Bonner all were not in uniform Saturday. Bonner was indefinitely suspended two weeks ago by Dooley, while Gordon has dealt with a knee injury and Gray has recently battled an illness.
. With the Vols thin in the secondary, redshirt junior cornerback Naz Oliver made his career debut on Saturday. Others making their debut against Kentucky: walk-ons running back Deanthonie Summerhill, defensive back Max Arnold, offensive linemen Brock Collier and Jacob Gilliam.
. Hunter finished the season with 73 receptions. He was just three short of the Tennessee single-season record of 76 held by former receiver Marcus Nash (1997).
. Rivera sat a school record for the most receiving yards in a season by a UT tight end with 562. The former record, held by current Dallas Cowboy Jason Witten, was 493 yards in 2002.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.