KNOXVILLE – Tennessee had its first test on Saturday against Austin Peay, albeit not a very tough one. The Vols knocked off the Governors 45-0 to earn the program’s 800th win and the first win at UT for new coach Butch Jones.
Here are some position-by-position grades:
There weren’t any spectacular moments from starter Justin Worley, but the junior, who was officially named the starter just last week, did a good job managing the offense. He connected on 11-of-13 passes for 104 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. At least one of his incomplete passes should’ve been caught. He was in good command of the offense and even showed some athleticism, rushing four times for 21 yards. Backup Nathan Peterman wasn’t quite as smooth, completing 4-of-8 passes for just 28 yards and taking a sack in second-half duty. He led a much less experienced second unit, but his accuracy was shaky in his limited opportunities.
Running backs: A
The duo of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane showed why it has a chance to have a productive year. Neal did most of the heavy lifting – carrying 16 times for 141 yards and a touchdown. Lane benefitted in the red zone, taking two of his six carries in for scores. Reserves Tom Smith (29 yards) and Deanthonie Summerhill (67 yards) each had some nice runs. Alden Hill’s stock continued to drop after he coughed up a fumble for UT’s lone turnover of the game in the second half.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C+
The lack of playmakers at these spots has been discussed since last season and, even against Austin Peay, it was clearly seen on Saturday. To their credit, there were three touchdown receptions (Devrin Young, Pig Howard and Brendan Downs). However, this group only created one play of 20-plus yards on the evening. Ten different players caught at least one pass, but none had more than three receptions and Marquez North led the way with just 33 receiving yards. Worley tried to find North on a deep ball early, but the true freshman let the big-play opportunity bounce off his hands.
Offensive line: A
The veteran unit completely dominated an overmatched Austin Peay defensive front. The first team gave up zero sacks and paved enormous holes in the run game on a consistent basis. There was a clear drop off when the reserves came in, but that group still only gave up one sack and helped the backup running backs find some space.
Defensive line: A-
It was a really good night for the starting defensive tackle duo of Daniel Hood and Daniel McCullers. McCullers was virtually unblockable, and though he only recorded one tackle officially, he affected almost every play he was in the game for. Hood recorded a tackle for loss and had his first career interception on a pass that he deflected. Maurice Couch and Marlon Walls each added a sack. In total, the Governors ran for just 79 yards on 27 carries against this unit.
It was a relatively quiet, but effective, evening for this unit. The starters – Brent Brewer, A.J. Johnson and Dontavis Sapp – combined for just six tackles. Even though there were no game-changing plays from this group, it still did its job in most cases – helping stuff the Austin Peay run game and supporting in pass coverage. Plenty of reserves such as John Propst, Greg King, Kenny Bynum and Christian Harris saw action. Curt Maggitt (ACL) was held out and it’s still unknown when he’ll make his season debut.
The first unit was solid, blanketing the Austin Peay receivers and preventing any kind of big gain for the Governors. There was perhaps the biggest drop off of any unit here, though, when the backups started coming on the field in the second quarter. The backup secondary, comprised of mainly freshmen and walk-ons, let a few receivers get wide open and gave up a 35-yard reception. Freshman Malik Foreman was beat a few times, but made a nice recovery early in the fourth quarter when he picked off an Austin Peay pass in the red zone to help preserve the shutout.
Special teams: B+
Kicker Michael Palardy had a good night, hitting all of his extra point attempts and a 37-yard field goal. His kickoffs and punts looked good as well. He averaged 44 yards per punt with good hang time and kicked a majority of his kickoffs near or into the end zone, including one touchback. Devrin Young was solid in the return game. The junior took his only kickoff return opportunity back 58 yards to begin the second half. He added 21 yards on two punt return opportunities. Coverage was strong most of the evening with one exception – a first quarter kickoff return by the Governors that included at least five missed tackles for the Vols.
The opponent was overmatched, but the Vols appeared to have plenty of what Jones likes to call “winning habits” on Saturday night. There were no penalties, just one turnover and very few mental errors and obvious missed assignments. Even with plenty of substitutions throughout the game, the team looked very organized. The lack of depth at a few spots was obvious, but there’s not much Jones and his staff can do about that right now except keep developing the younger players and recruit more for the future. Jones passed his first on-field test easily, but it will only get harder from here.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga