KNOXVILLE – Tennessee hung on for a 31-24 win over South Alabama on Saturday after jumping out to a 31-7 lead early in the second half.
Here are some position-by-position grades:
The Vols continue to get subpar play from the quarterback position. Starter Justin Worley will tease fans by making some SEC-quality throws, but his decision making and overall accuracy aren’t what Tennessee needs if it wants to have success in SEC play going forward. UT can live with the 204 passing yards and two touchdowns that Worley produced. His three interceptions and 16 incomplete passes are too many, however.
Running backs: A-
Tennessee might not have escaped South Alabama with a win if not for the efforts of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. Neal, especially, had a huge day with a career-high 169 yards and a touchdown. Big plays helped the Vols pile up 278 yards on the ground against the Jaguars. A 54-yard scamper by Marlin Lane and a 53-yard run from Neal were the two biggest chunks on the ground.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C
It was a relatively average day for this group. Two true freshmen – tight end A.J. Branisel and receiver Josh Smith – each scored their first career touchdown. Jason Croom added three catches for 50 yards. Marquez North and Pig Howard were relatively quiet with a combined five catches for 56 yards. This group is progressing and developing, but isn’t quite where UT needs it to be at this point.
Offensive line: B
It still wasn’t a completely dominant performance, but this unit created enough room in the ground game to help the Vols have a big day rushing. Protection was good enough, with only one sack surrendered. Still, UT needs more from its most veteran and talented group going forward in SEC play.
Defensive line: B
Massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers seemed more active and the stat sheet reflected that. He piled up six tackles, a career high, and recorded a quarterback hurry. The pass rush was inconsistent, but the front four got enough pressure in some key situations to help preserve the win. Corey Miller sacking South Alabama quarterback Ross Metheny on the Jaguars’ final drive was one of the biggest plays of the game.
The starting trio of Brent Brewer, A.J. Johnson and Dontavis Sapp combined for 15 stops on the day. Brewer added an interception, while Sapp recorded two quarterback hurries. They were asked to do a lot in coverage against South Alabama’s three and four wide receiver sets. The run defense, which gave up less than 5 yards per carry to the Jaguars, was acceptable. The entire defense, however, continues to struggle on containing the outside – something the linebackers can help more with.
It was somewhat of a mixed bag for the secondary. On one hand, it recorded two of the three interceptions, including the game-sealing pick by safety Brian Randolph. On the other, the Jaguars did pile up 254 yards through the air and made it look easy at a few points during the game. Opposing teams are also exposing UT’s lack of speed and sometimes physicality in the secondary. It’s hard to run up the middle on the Vols, but teams love to get outside and take their chances against UT’s defensive backs.
Special teams: B+
Outside of the botched fake field goal sequence, the special teams were virtually flawless. Michael Palardy had four touchbacks in six kickoff attempts, averaged 45.5 yards on four punts and hit a 40-yard field goal in addition to all his extra points. Kick coverage was great and punt returner Jacob Carter even added an 18-yard punt return. That failed fake will remain on of the indelible images from this game, though. A false start nullified what was materializing into a perfectly-executed fake. On the next play, Palardy appeared to hit the holder’s hand and shanked a 52-yard attempt that was then picked up and returned into UT territory.
It’s hard to be too critical of the coaching when the team comes out with a win. All-in-all, it wasn’t a great day for the Vols, however. They looked inspired in the first half (at least after the first drive), but they were clearly flat and lethargic at times in the second half – adjectives coach Butch Jones has said he doesn’t want to be associated with his program. But most importantly, they did find a way to win, even if it didn’t get them many style points. It’s always easier to teach and improve upon mistakes after a victory.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga