It’s not until the team on the other sideline dons another color before much is known about college football teams.
On this level, there are no preseason games and limited time for scrimmage work to get a proper gauge of where a team is. Returning lettermen and starters give a glimpse at how much experience comes back, but that doesn’t give a look at who got their teammates together in June for routes on air, who spent their spring break sprinting through sand or who invested their free time fine-tuning their skills on FIFA 16.
Tennessee didn’t amaze with its season-opening performance versus Appalachian State, needing its running back to dive on its quarterback’s second fumble to get the go-ahead points in a 20-13 overtime victory over a visiting Sun Belt Conference team.
If the age-old adage of seeing vast improvements from Game 1 to Game 2, the Volunteers could look like a completely different team by the time they trot onto the race track/football field in Bristol on Saturday night.
As many returning contributors as the Big Orange have from their 9-4 season, we did see some differences between January and Thursday.
- Junior running back Jalen Hurd showed off something of a stiff-arm by discarding somebody's kids that wore purple on a football field back in January. The Hendersonville native has worked on something of more of a true stiff-arm since and put that on display Thursday night. A stiff-arm helped quite a bit in putting the Heisman Trophy into the hands of former Alabama running back Derrick Henry. If Hurd continues to "bring the noise" with defenders to create some space, he could be that much more deadly.
- Sophomore Micah Abernathy is another example of Tennessee coaches making speed of extreme importance. The Greater Atlanta Christian alum signed with the Vols as cornerback, logged time as a freshman as a nickelback and now starts at safety. The former Scout four-star prospect found his home in centerfield and the consistency he showed Bob Shoop has him planted into the lineup. Abernathy reads and reacts quickly and made it hard for Mountaineers to get to the edge on his side when they ran the jet sweep. Unlike some former corners, Abernathy enjoys hitting. He does need to work his fundamental base and become more of a sure tackler.
- Appalachian State's defense to slow down Tennessee's ground game. It's a sound gameplan as that's clearly the Vols' strength when they have the football. That left wide receivers on the edge singled up, daring Joshua Dobbs to dial 9. When Tennessee did go deep, Dobbs hooked up with former roommate Josh Malone for a game-tying, 67-yard touchdown. It was a clean-looking rep and could be a sign of things to come, which could greatly benefit the ground game by keeping safeties out of the box.
- How about Aaron Medley? The Lewisburg native that some suggest got death threats after missing three lengthy field goals in a five-point loss in Tuscaloosa last October has done nothing but improve ever since. He's played a key role in running the winning streak to seven. The former Under Armour All-America made all four kicks (two field goals, two extra points) and if he missed any of the first three, Tennessee loses. He added in a touchback on one of his four kickoffs.
- Senior captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin didn't get in a full 14 minutes of gametime before being disqualified for targeting. The sudden change brought former four-star safety Cortez McDowell onto the field to spell the Clarksville native. McDowell responded like a champ by notching nine tackles. Depth is a wonderful thing for Tennessee these days and McDowell has already proven himself a worthy back-up. It'd been his job to lose had Reeves-Maybin declared early for the NFL Draft. McDowell put his identity on film for 2017 as he attempts to hold off competitors like Quarté Sapp for a starting job.
- As positive as we've been about what was essentially Tennessee's worst performance since Arkansas last year — likely even worse than that night — we have to point to a negative. Perhaps it was how tight the game was but coaches did as well thought they might and that's leave a majority of the starters on the field for almost all of the reps with capable back-ups resting on the sidelines. Depth talk is fun and it's exciting to finally see some highly rated recruits take the field, but the staff has to be willing to give them a chance. Players like Daniel Bituli, Marquez Callaway, John Kelly, Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor played a grand total of zero (0) snaps between them. Butch Jones told IT that those reps are earned through preparation and practice. Let's see if that motivates some of the greenhorns this week on Haslam Field.