KNOXVILLE – Going back to the second half of the South Alabama game two weeks ago and into the first half against Georgia last weekend, Tennessee’s offense was clearly in a rut.
In those four total quarters the Vols scored just 10 points – one touchdown against the Jaguars and a field goal against the Bulldogs. Questions about the quarterback and the receivers especially began to mount.
Then came a 28-point outburst in the second half against Georgia. Virtually every call was executed to perfection as the Vols dissected a Georgia defense that had stonewalled them in the first half. If not for a fumble on the 1 yard-line in overtime by receiver Pig Howard, that outburst might’ve led UT to a shocking win over No. 6 Georgia.
“I think we just hit a little wall and that happens throughout the season,” quarterback Justin Worley said of the four quarter stretch prior to the second half against Georgia. “I think being able to bounce back from it and regain that momentum in the second half of the Georgia game really helps going forward.”
That will be the challenge – sustaining the momentum and the level of execution from that second half effort. Tennessee’s offense had shown signs of that type of production before the Georgia game. It just hadn’t put an entire half together of that level of execution.
"We are getting better and we will continue to improve,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. “We have said that since day one that it is a process and we are embracing the process. The important thing is we continue to build on it. We can’t take one step forward and two steps back.
“We have to continue to progress each week. We were only 7-of-17 on third downs [against Georgia]. We still have areas we can get better.”
One area of improvement has been the play of the young wide receivers. Perhaps no other group made more progress than coach Zach Azzanni’s group last Saturday. The numbers weren’t huge, but a group consisting primarily of freshmen and sophomores made some big catches to help move the chains on third down.
They’re a far cry from the group that struggled to line up properly and run the correct routes early in fall camp.
"We've taken some steps every game, there's a lot more in our tank,” said Azzanni. “We made a lot of mistakes the other night, but we made some plays when we had to. So that was good to see. We've got a long ways to go. We're still young, we're still inexperienced, but every game you see flashes of our habits coming out. I'm pleased."
Azzanni is beginning to get a better feel for his young unit as well. It’s somewhat of a diverse position group that ranges from the small and shifty 5-foot-8, 185-pound Howard to the bigger targets such as Jason Croom (6-5, 225) and Marquez North (6-4, 215).
“I'm starting to learn these guys better - who can play this amount of plays and who can play that amount of plays,” Azzanni said. “I didn't know that at the beginning of the season. Now I think I have a decent rotation going to where I know I can get the most out of a guy at a certain play limit.”
Bajakian believes that second-half emergence of the passing game could help all facets of the offense. Combined with UT’s strong run game, the Vols had their most balanced effort, something Bajakian would like to see more of going forward.
“Make no mistake about it, as one player play improves so does everyone else,” he said. “It works both ways. As guys on the perimeter are making those difficult catches, as the offensive line is protecting a hair of a second longer, it results in the quarterback being able to find those open receivers and make those connections."
• Out: WR Devrin Young, TE Alex Ellis, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, QB Nathan Peterman, RB Marlin Lane, LG Alex Bullard, LT Tiny Richardson
• Limited: RB Rajion Neal, TE Brendan Downs, TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, CB Justin Coleman, LB Brent Brewer
• The Vols started practice off with the circle of life drill where two players go one-on-one and try to knock the other out of the ring. Offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman got the best of defensive end Jaylen Miller. D-tackle Greg Clark won against guard Marcus Jackson and receiver Cody Blanc easily beat safety Lemond Johnson.
• With South Carolina next on the schedule (Oct. 19), linebacker Curt Maggitt, who has been practicing but not playing after tearing his ACL last November, was wearing a No. 7 scout team jersey to simulate South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga