Cory Gunkel's Take
If ever there was a game to tune up before hitting SEC play next week, this was it. When Tennessee needed to deliver in all three phases against its weakest opponent, Butch Jones' team didn't let Western Carolina escape without slamming its foot down on the Catamounts' throat and pressing down as hard as possible. Okay, so maybe that's a little bit graphic for win over an FCS team, but it's how this game felt from the very beginning.
Cam Sutton started the festivities by forcing a fumble after a 16-yard WCU gain, and the snowball turned into an avalanche. Josh Dobbs passed for more yards in one half (147 and two touchdowns on 21 attempts) than he did in the entire Oklahoma game last week. The Vols came out of the gate destined to prove they could do more in the air than breathe it, and they ended up racking up 237 passing yards with two different QBs to almost double their season average through two games. Running the ball was just as easy, where Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and John Kelly combined for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Just another business-like approach for Hurd and Kamara and a coming out party of sorts for Kelly, who ran really hard and always somehow seemed to fall forward. The offensive line played well and there wasn't really a problem at all on this side of the ball or anywhere really. Tennessee has scored 138 points over its first three games — the most through three contests since the Vols scored 171 to start the 1914 season. All this despite just getting the passing game going. It's a really nice time for the offense to be sliding into Gainesville. Oh yeah: Preston Williams, meet Tennessee's fan base. I have a feeling you two are gonna develop something real special for the next couple of years.
Defensively, you'd have to nitpick to find a mistake. Darrin Kirkland struggled a little in coverage, but he's also a freshman in his first ever career start. The storyline of the day on D was the return of LaDarrell McNeil, who went from possibly not ever playing football again in late August to picking off an errant pass in his first game back since being sidelined with neck instability issues. McNeil choked back tears in his post-game press conference and surely deserves as many game balls as Butch Jones dishes out. The defense held Western Carolina to 279 yards and just 90 in the air. This is an extremely confident bunch that played a lot of young players tonight, and one that will only get better. That's scary news for whoever lines up across from them.
The special teams may have been the highlight of the night, though, despite more explosions than Boomsday on the other sides of the ball. Evan Berry returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown while his brother and recent cancer survivor, Eric, watched from the sideline. Evan joked after the game that his older bro said he would have caught him, and I'm not so sure I disagree. Alvin Kamara followed it up with a 50-yard punt return in which he bounced off a slightly less amount of Catamounts than Berry. Aaron Medley connected on both of his field goal attempts, and if it wasn't for his two kickoffs out of bounds, this would have been a perfect score for the special teams.
With the most important game of the young season finally rearing its head, Tennessee was able to stretch out, tinker with its scheme, give young players valuable repetitions and pull out an enormous win. The Vols even put some new things on tape for teams to worry about, like lining Jauan Jennings up in the Wildcat formation. It was an all-around win Saturday for the Vols
Special teams: A
Danny Parker's Take
Tennessee scored on nine of its first 12 possessions, took care of business early and disposed of Western Carolina 55-10.
Butch Jones' offense did exactly what I said they needed to do, stressing the passing game early with high-percentage throws and getting the aerial juices flowing. The Volunteers aren't going to get where they need to go without having a dependable throw game and it took a step forward Saturday night and did so on the first possession with Joshua Dobbs completing passes of 5, 7 and 4 yards before a 25-yard touchdown to Preston Williams.
Nine different receivers tallied receptions. Eight different plays ran the football. Two quarterbacks threw passes.
Been saying it for over a calendar year now but get used to the phrase "Dormady to Williams." The freshman signal-caller shook loose a tackler right in front of me and hit a wide open Williams for 6 not long after a gorgeous deep ball down the right sideline. The future is bright, Vols fans.
Twenty-eight Vols registered at least one tackle. Three different players had a tackle for loss. Two players scored TDs in the return game.
Complete team effort defensively, which was not the case the week prior. With the lone exception probably being Todd Kelly Jr., nearly the entire starting lineup got rest after a grueling Week 2 game that Jones referred to as two games in one week considering the snaps and two overtime periods. That was "critical" with the Southeastern Conference schedule set to get going.
It's about to get real. Tennessee needed a complete game and an easy win if nothing else so they can see how it's done and how it's supposed to feel regardless of opponent. If the Vols can play a complete four quarters and play complimentary football from here on, it will have a solid chance against every remaining foe. No "sure-fire" losses are on the schedule anymore with the talent this roster now has. Doesn't mean they'll run the table but it's at least possible.
Special teams deserved an A-plus if not for Aaron Medley kicking two footballs out of bounds. That can't happen. This team will absolutely need Medley to perform at a higher level going forward and Jones needs to know he can depend on the sophomore from Lewisburg.
Special teams: A
Josh Woodward's Take
The Vols made this one look easy against FCS opponent Western Carolina. It was a great game to get some more youngsters some reps on both sides of the ball. Good job by Coach Butch Jones and his staff to have the team ready to go after last week. Also, nice job by the Tennessee fans by filling the stadium up against the weakest opponent on the schedule.
Offensively, it was easy. Western Carolina couldn't stop the Vols for most of the night. Preston Williams made his presence felt for the first time this season and he is going to be special. I expect him to be a starter next week after his performance. I also liked the Wildcat package with Jennings. It give opponents something else to think about heading into SEC play. Maybe they can sneak a pass play in with him at quarterback this season. They will need to be firing on all cylinders as the head to Gainesville next weekend.
Defensively, the Vols weren't challenged either. I liked Darrin Kirkland at linebacker and it was good to see LaDarrell McNeil back on the field, and even better for him to get that interception. Again, getting all the young defenders some reps will help as the year progresses. The defense will have a few challenges next week in Gainesville as Florida's quarterback Will Grier has some sneaky wheels, so he can burn you. I expect Tennessee to be able to pressure the Florida quarterback as their offensive line isn't very good.
The special teams play was as good as I have ever seen tonight. The only flaw was the two kicks out of bounds by Aaron Medley. Other than that, is was perfect. Evan Berry had a SportsCenter Top 10 kickoff return for a touchdown. Then you throw in the Alvin Kamara punt return for a touchdown and you've got another thing of beauty on special teams. I wouldn't mind them putting Kamara back there and resting Sutton more.
Overall, this game went better than I even expected. The Vols were able to get some of that bad taste out of their mouth after that Oklahoma loss. Now it's time to strap them up and head to Gainesville. The Gators aren't very good on offense, but still have a really good defense. Should be a great matchup.
Special teams: A+