KNOXVILLE – Tennessee capped off a 5-7 campaign with a 27-14 win at Kentucky on Saturday.
Here are some position-by-position grades:
Joshua Dobbs, playing with a sore thumb and a wrap on his leg, played his best game. The true freshman completed 14 of 23 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He looked composed, confident and comfortable in just his second career start on the road. He was a big contributor on the ground as well, keeping it seven times for 52 yards, including a 40-yard TD run.
Running backs: A-
Senior Rajion Neal went out on a high note. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season on the second play of the game, a 60-yard touchdown run that spotted UT a 7-0 lead early in the contest. He finished the night with 20 carries for a 137 yards (6.7 ypc). Backup Marlin Lane contributed 11 carries for 31 yards, but he did cough up a fumble that was recovered by Kentucky.
Wide receivers/tight ends: B
Considering who was on the field, this group stepped up. Marquez North (ankle) was out and fellow oversized receiver Jason Croom filled in nicely. He had two grabs for 74 yards and a TD before breaking his collarbone and leaving the game early. Devrin Young, normally known for his work as a kick returner, stepped in and caught four passes for a career-high 66 yards and a touchdown as well.
Offensive line: A
This group showed off its size, strength and athleticism against an overmatched Kentucky defense. The Vols averaged 5.1 yards per carry and the ‘Cats only registered one sack on the evening. UT especially found success running to the right behind tackle Ja’Wuan James, who was named the SEC’s offensive lineman of the week.
Defensive line: A+
Where did this performance come from? After not recording a sack since the South Carolina game in October, the D-line came up huge in Lexington with five sacks. Senior Corey Miller, named the NCAA’s defensive player of the week, was credited with 4.5, a new school record, topping the previous mark of four set by Reggie White. But all of this group, especially the defensive ends, played at a high level.
A.J. Johnson recorded nine tackles to up his total to over 100 for the season for the second consecutive year. Johnson, Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer all had at least five tackles and at least one tackle for loss, so it was a fairly active day for this group. Senior John Propst recovered a Kentucky fumble late in the fourth quarter to end any hope of a miracle comeback for the ‘Cats.
Kentucky threw for a respectable 254 yards in the game. The Vols allowed quarterback Maxwell Smith to complete 65.7-percent of his passes, but, for the most part, they kept everything in front of them, only allowing Kentucky to complete one pass of more than 20 yards. Freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton had a good evening, recording three tackles and breaking up two passes. Safety Brian Randolph recorded nine tackles as well.
Special teams: B+
Young did a nice job in the return game, returning a punt 17 yards and a kickoff 37 yards to help UT win the field position battle. Punter Michael Palardy kept the ‘Cats backed up. The senior averaged 49.5 yards per punt with a long of 69. The only notable mishap was Palardy’s missed extra point, which broke a string of 35 straight makes by the senior.
It had to feel good to be on the other side of the talent gap for coach Butch Jones and staff. The Vols were bigger, faster and simply better than the Wildcats, a team that ended the season with zero SEC wins. Still, credit Jones for having a team that was dejected from losing its bowl opportunity last week ready to play on the road. The seniors got sent out on a high note and now Jones will get back to the long process of rebuilding the roster via recruiting and developing the returning players.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga