Vols Ace First Test

Here's the top to bottom ratings for the Tennessee-UNLV game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing.

OFFENSIVE LINE: (95) This unit keyed Tennessee's victory with one of its most dominating performances in the last three seasons. There wasn't much not to like as the Vols front five — Michael Munoz, Rob Smith, Jason Respert, Cody Douglas and Arron Sears — came off the ball together and rocked the Rebels' D-line throughout the game. UT compiled 276 yards on the ground in 45 carries for an average of six yards per run. O-line allowed a couple of sacks including one in the first possession that resulted in the Vols only turnover as the Rebels had a blitzer come untouched from Brent Schaeffer's blind side and jarred the ball loose. Otherwise, it was an outstanding performance that took the pressure off two true freshmen quarterbacks and put the game in the hands of the running backs.

RUNNING BACKS: (93) Vols unleashed a trio of tailbacks in Cedric Houston (12 carries for 97 yards), Gerald Riggs (13 carries for 79 yards) and Corey Larkins (9 carries for 49 yards) that combined for 227 yards in 34 attempts. Houston looked particularly energized and ran with raw abandon. An ankle injury cost Houston a 100-yard game, but it was encouraging to see Riggs and Larkins each step to the plate and post career highs. The influence of running backs coach Trooper Taylor was apparent as the tailbacks played with enthusiasm and verve. Jabari Davis was a powerhouse in short yardage. Fullback Corey Anderson didn't have any carries but he showed great potential as a lead blocker seeing his first action in the backfield. He also caught a couple of passes for 22 yards. Anderson was a pleasant surprise and, at 270 pounds, is a decided upgrade as a blocker.

QUARTERBACKS: (91) True freshman quarterbacks are rarely as good as advertised. However, Tennessee had two real rookies in Erik Ainge and Schaeffer that actually exceeded the appraisals of most recruiting analysts. Considering the circumstances, they performed with remarkable poise and promise. Each displayed deft touch on their passes and managed the offense with maturity beyond their years. Schaeffer picked up 40 yards in nine runs and used his mobility to buy time for his receivers. Ainge was quick to find the open receiver and quicker to release the ball. Only a couple of balls were forced the entire night and neither quarterback picked up a delay of game penalty. The only turnover (a fumble) wasn't Schaeffer's fault and he bounced back in fine fashion. They'll step up in competition against Florida but they show no signs of being intimidated by a challenge. It will be an exciting season watching this dynamite duo grow and compete.

SECONDARY: (88) This unit has been a source of concern but it performed well against UNLV and actually recorded more tackles than UT's linebacker corps. Strong safety Brandon Johnson had a team high nine stops (four solo and five assists) in his first career start. Veteran cornerback Jason Allen tied Johnson for a team best four solo tackles and Roshaun Fellows added five total stops and a breakup in his first college game action. Free safety Corey Campbell intercepted a pass and Jonathan Hefney contributed three primary tackles. The secondary allowed only 13 completions despite a lack of consistent pressure on the UNLV's passer. The DBs didn't miss many tackles which was key against lightening quick Rebel running back Dominique Dorsey. They'll see better passer down the road but UNLV had quality receivers and very good speed.

RECEIVERS: (87) This unit seems ready to put all worries to rest after two seasons of sub par play. Tony Brown, C.J. Fayton and Robert Meachem each had touchdowns, providing the Vols with half of their TDs in the game. Tight end Brad Cottam equaled UT's production at this position for the entire 2003 season with a catch for 18 yards. Chris Hannon had three catches, tying Brown for most receptions while Jayson Swain and Derrick Tinsley had two catches each. Tennessee only tested UNLV deep once which may have been by design. Developing a deep threat is critical to the success of the passing game this season.

DEFENSIVE LINE: (82) A D-line that was virtually rebuilt from the ground up for the third year in a row had its moments against UNLV and was consistently able to gain penetration up front. It wasn't spectacular and had difficultly getting pressure on the passer at times, but it was essentially sound. Jesse Mahelona, Jason Hall and Parys Haralson had three of UT's five tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Tennessee's still looking for that defensive end that can bring heat from the edge and force offenses to adjust. Vols also need to develop more depth at defensive tackle in order to push the pace.

LINEBACKERS: (79) The most heralded of Tennessee's units on either side of the ball was something less than stellar in the season opener. Starters Kevin Burnett, Kevin Simon and Jason Mitchell combined for only four solo tackles with 15 total assists. Mitchell and Simon each had a stop behind the line of scrimmage, but overall the Vol linebackers didn't maintain gap control and missed some opportunities to down Dorsey for losses. It wasn't the type of swarming, disrupting, physical performance UT will need from this group, which has to set the tone for the defense this season. Omar Gaither (3 tackles, 2 assists) looks like he'll push for playing time and Daniel Brooks (3 assists) is beginning to get up to speed.

SPECIAL TEAMS: (69) There was good news and bad news from UT's special teams on Sunday. James Wilhoit put most of his kickoffs in the end zone but the one short kick he had was returned for 59 yards by Dorsey. He was six-of-six on extra point attempts but missed his only field goal try from 44 yards. Dustin Colquitt was in midseason form, booting three punts for a 51.3 yard average. The Vols covered his towering punts like champs, holding UNLV to minus 13 yards in the return game. Tennessee returned two kickoffs for only 26 total yards. Hefney returned a punt for a touchdown only to have it called back for a block in the back. The Vols need more consistency from its special teams to be special this season.

OVERALL: (90) On balance, it was a solid effort with few glaring flaws. The return to power running and a balanced offense (272 rushing, 241 passing) was most encouraging as was the inspired play by the freshmen signal callers. Tennessee had and executed a fine game plan. Most of the mistakes by the defense were due to over pursuit and Dorsey's individual brilliance. An excellent start to what could be an outstanding season.


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