Was it light at the end of the tunnel or just an oncoming SEC train? To be sure there are still plenty of problems to remedy from sloppy tackling to playing soft between the tackles to allowing far too many big plays. If that sounds like a pessimistic appraisal... well it is, but it is offered with a caveat for those ready to dismissed the Vols chances for success. There is a depth of talent that can come together before the season gets derailed.
The point you have to keep in mind where Arkansas State is concerned is that it is a Division-I school in name alone. The Indians (soon to be renamed) average about 17,000 in home attendance and have one-tenth of the financial and physical resources that Tennessee enjoys. Their recruiting budget is nearly nonexistent as are their TV revenues and exposure. It is a program that relies on the recruiting scraps from Memphis, Little Rock and rural areas of Arkansas and Mississippi. The 2007 signing class had only one prospect rated in the top 65 at his position. The majority fell outside the top 400 at their respective positions. ASU has had one winning season (6-5 in 2005) in seven years as a D-I entity.
Head coach Steve Roberts has done a lot with a little over the last six years and has managed to make his team largely competitive, but this isn't a measuring stick for SEC teams as much as it is a respite from a meat-grinder schedule. The point: any improvement observed against the Indians has to be taken with a dose of reality.
Here are the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Arkansas 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 and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Further analysis to follow.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (84) Certainly the most improved unit on the field with picks by Marsalous Johnson and Brent Vinson chief among the achievements. The Vols held Arkansas State's passing attack to under 200 yards, 50-percent completions and only 5.5 yards per attempt. That's actually less than the Indians averaged per running attempt. Tackling was better although there is clearly room to improve. Newcomers Vinson, Nevin McKenzie and Eric Berry had four solos each. Jonathan Hefney (1 solo, 1 assist) has yet to hit his stride in his senior season. The talent is there to be a strong secondary before the season is over, but will be even better next season as the DBs have a chance to synchronize as a unit.
DEFENSIVE LINE (79) Robert Ayers created pressure off the edge with 6 stops, 3 tackles for losses with two sacks. His counterpart Xavier Mitchell added 3 solos (2 for loss) and Antonio Reynolds had 3 stops. Ben Martin and Wes Brown each saw action and had a solo stop. Dan Williams led the tackles with 3 stops, while J.T. Mapu added a stop, forced and recovered a fumble. Demonte Bolden also had a sack. Chase Nelson and Walter Fisher had a stop each. Overall a good effort and productive night plus getting players in the game will pay off down the road, but the 5.7 yards surrendered per carry remains a red flag.
LINEBACKERS (70) Jerod Mayo (4 solos, 2 assists), Dorian Davis (5 solos), Adam Myers-White (4 solos), Ryan Karl (3/1), Ellix Wilson (3/1) comprised five of UT's top nine tacklers. For the most part the Vols did a good job of swarming the ball and gang tackling, but didn't create turnovers or produce big-play opportunities as expected. Starter Rico McCoy only contributed an assist.
OVERALL (77) A lot of what Tennessee fans have been waiting to see including crisper tackling, greater pressure and three forced turnovers. Good effort and increased intensity. The defense only gave up two TDs and a pair of field goals, but the failure to shutdown Arkansas State's rushing game makes one wonder how the Vols will fare against future foes. Inexperience in the secondary is an issue as is the lack of dominance in the middle. However that may be more a product of a group of defensive tackles that remain suspect. The 6 of 13 conversion rate on third downs could also improve.
SPECIAL TEAMS (85) The kicking portion of special teams was superb with Daniel Lincoln hitting both his field goals and all six extra points. Britton Colquitt averaged 46.8 yards on four punts putting 3 inside the 20. Chad Cunningham booted nine kickoffs for an average of 63.3 yards. LaMarcus Coker returned one kickoff 32 yards but his other two returns totaled 35 yards. Hefney managed to lose 17 yards on four punt returns with a long of 1 yard. Brandon Tompkins totaled 197 yards on eight kickoff returns with a long of 37 yards for Arkansas State which finished with 263 return yards in the game. The Vols finished with 98 return yards.