I was excited to see Tennessee's season opener on Saturday in hopes that it would beat away my ignorance. It did not.
I still don't know what to think of these Vols after a 50-0 thumping of UT-Martin, except that they have the maturity and focus to handle an inferior opponent.
However, closed practices, a new coaching staff and just one game against the Skyhawks still has me scratching my head.
The following are my grades for UT's first win under Head Coach Derek Dooley. Some might be a little lower than you would expect, but remember who the Vols were playing this weekend.
Matt Simms was fine at managing the game and handling his emotions in his first game in Neyland Stadium. His statistics were solid, 14-of-24 for 181 yards and a touchdown.
However, Simms wasn't nearly as accurate as he'll need to be against tighter coverage. Tyler Bray was 3-of-6 for 24 yards and threw an interception.
A Running Backs
The Vols may have a special combination with Tauren Poole (110 rushing yards) and David Oku (77 rushing yards). Poole's power belies his size. Oku has good instincts and isn't afraid to hit the hole at full speed despite his diminutive stature.
Luke Stocker only caught two passes for 17 yards. Newcomers DaRick Rogers (wide receiver) and Mychal Rivera (tight end) both caught a pass. UT's receivers weren't needed much but still turned in some big plays.
B+ Offensive Line
The Vols rushed for 332 yards, but the second-string unit did give up a sack. One sack against an SEC team is a good day. Against UT-Martin, it's average. Starting center Cody Pope did a good job on line audibles. For five new starters, there's not much to complain about.
B Defensive Line
Only one sack? That's alarming. Not surprisingly, it came from Montori Hughes. UT's most talented defensive lineman had 2 ½ tackles for a loss and – at times – looked like former Vol Albert Haynesworth before he got rich. Hughes could use more consistency.
Tackle Victor Thomas was active with a pass broken up and two tackles. End/tackle Gerald Williams had a tackle for a loss. Ends Malik Jackson and Chris Walker were held in check. Each had one quarterback hurry and one tackle. Still, UT's defensive front helped hold the Skyhawks to 1.9 yards-per-carry.
Backup Austin Johnson had five tackles, 1 ½ for a loss, recorded a safety and broke up two passes. UT needs to find a way to get him on the field more.
LaMarcus Thompson had five tackles, one for a loss. It appears UT has at least six solid linebackers. Greg King had three tackles, ½ for a loss, as a backup. He'll also push for more playing time as he continues to get healthier.
A Defensive Backs
Free safety Prentiss Waggner scored on a 54-yard interception return and led the Vols with six tackles. UT only gave up 86 yards passing. Despite just three tackles and no passes defended, strong safety Janzen Jackson appears to be rounding into form after missing much of preseason camp with a sore hamstring.
C- Special Teams
The Vols will be in a lot of close games this season and can't afford turnovers, i.e. Jones' fumbled punt return. However, in defense of Jones, he did step into a strip of light which put the ball directly in the sun.
Dooley told his players shortly after he was hired not to trust him immediately, that he'd eventually earn their faith. That seems to have happened.
UT's players were prepared from the start of Saturday's game and closed strong. Also credit Dooley with sticking with the same five offensive line starters for most of the off-season. There is clearly chemistry among that unit.
Defensively, coordinator Justin Wilcox had a solid plan on Saturday that didn't show future opponents too much.