KNOXVILLE – The performance in Saturday’s Orange and White Game was far from what coach Butch Jones will be looking for in the fall, but it was the first public look at what the Vols might look like in 2013.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of how each group fared in the Orange’s (defense) 95-71 win.
The numbers weren’t impressive. Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman combined to complete just 18-of-43 attempts for 230 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Those two were also sacked a combined seven times. But there were some SEC-caliber throws and they have to be graded on curve since they could be sacked by being touched and were playing without several key parts of the offense. Worley heads into the summer as leader in the clubhouse, but this race, which will now include incoming freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, should continue into the fall.
Running backs: B
The solid performance of Alden Hill (18 carries, 101 yards) was one of the true bright spots of the afternoon. With the status of Marlin Lane unknown going forward, developing Hill as a potential contributor will be important over the summer. Likely starter Rajion Neal (11 carries, 40 yards; 2 catches, 42 yards) was solid, though not spectacular.
Wide receivers/tight ends: Incomplete
There just were just too many injuries to give a grade on this group. Receivers Jacob Carter, Jason Croom and Paul Harris along with tight ends Brendan Downs and Justin Meredith, all likely contributors, were held out. Vincent Dallas (48 yards) and Cody Blanc (59 yards) both had a nice reception. Slot receivers Devrin Young and Pig Howard combined for five catches. Of the tight ends, Justin King was the only player to record a reception. These two positions will look much different in the fall with newcomers arriving over the summer and injured players returning.
Offensive line: C
A group that is supposed to be the strength of the roster looked somewhat average on Saturday. Nine total sacks were given up and though there was some space paved in the running game, there weren’t a ton of gaping holes. The return of left tackle Tiny Richardson will bolster a group that was good in 2012, but needs to be even better in 2013 for UT’s offense to succeed.
Defensive line: A-
After struggling to get to the quarterback in 2012, new defensive line coach Steve Stripling’s group got after the quarterback in a big way on Saturday – collecting nine total sacks in an abbreviated game. True, all of those sacks wouldn’t have happened in a real game since the quarterbacks were down by simply touching them, but it was still an encouraging sign. The performance of freshman defensive end Corey Vereen (four sacks) was one of the highlights of the day.
It was a relatively quiet day for this group. Dontavis Sapp, who has likely played his way into a starting role this spring, led the way with three tackles and two tackles-for-loss. A.J. Johnson, the SEC’s leading tackler in 2012, had just one stop in the game. Sapp’s emergence, along with the return of Curt Maggitt, gives this group a chance to be improved in 2013.
Two of the biggest plays of the game – an interception and 37-yard return by Brian Randolph and a 62-yard pick-six by Max Arnold – came from this group. The defensive backs were draped all over the receivers and made life in the passing game difficult. The safeties look much improved and deeper with Randolph, Byron Moore and LaDarrell McNeil all having a good spring. Outside of Justin Coleman, the Vols need more help at cornerback, but as a group, they have a chance to be much better in 2013.
Special teams: B+
Kicker Michael Palardy hit all three of his field goals, including a 52-yarder. Not bad for a guy who didn’t hit any over 38 last season. Punting situations were just a snapper, punter and returner in this game, but the punts looked decent and the main contenders for the punt-return job did a good job fielding them. There were no live kickoff returns on Saturday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga