Luckily, unlike most teams for most seasons, the Vols’ began the 2014 season against an opponent that would not be a push over by any means. However, they still made Utah State look like an FCS team that needed to head back to the minor leagues of the NCAA after Sunday night’s 38-7 winning performance.
Not only did the Vols shutdown an experienced and weathered offense Sunday night, they may have completely eliminated any hopes Chuckie Keeton had at returning for his senior season to steal a Heisman trophy from the typical juggernaut schools that bring them home each year.
Not only is Keeton a deadly passer, but he has no problem beating you with his legs either. So for a team that has historically struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks to come out and completely annihilate this senior quarterback’s game speaks volumes for this young, yet still experienced defense.
Tennessee won Sunday night’s game with defense, hands down, which is a good sign for Tennessee football fans who have witnessed some of the most horrendous defensive efforts over the past several years. It doesn’t get much worse than forcing your offense to score 50-plus points every game, even against the power house of Troy (sarcasm detectors on, please) to just have a chance to win the ball game (circa 2012 Sal Sunseri led defense).
One final note on the defense, simply put, they are fast. The last two seasons this defense would get throttled by bubble screens, dump offs, and check down passes all game long, but Sunday night they showed their ability to finally survey and cover the field as a whole, while still getting pressure on the quarterback and not having to bring a house blitz.
It’s only been one game, but this brand new defensive line looks like the real deal, and the back end of the defense finally has versatility.
The only weak-spots the Vols showed Sunday night were on offense, mainly with the running game, and special teams.
Although one of the best plays of the night was made early in the game on special teams by A.J. Johnson with the forced fumble that later turned into a touchdown, the rest of it was iffy at best. The most disappointing special teams performance had to have come from true-freshman kicker Aaron Medley.
While he is a true-freshman who just played his first game in front of a sellout crowd of 102,455 people, the kid seemed a little shell-shocked Sunday night. He was highly touted as a kicker who could send each kickoff out of the endzone, but had zero touchbacks throughout the game, and ended the night hitting one-out-of-two field goals. The one he missed, though, never had a shot from the beginning, as from around 40 yards out the ball was not only short, but never made any sort of turn towards the endzone.
Again, he’s a true-freshman and it was his first game in front of a crowd that big, but if Medley is going to carry the weight of the kicking game on his shoulders he had better step it up, or Butch Jones better hope no game comes down to a field goal try for the win/tie.
Finally, time to break down the Vols’ offense.
While they did put up 38 points against a seasoned Utah State team, the Vols offense still looked a little less than impressive in the season-opener. Given the onslaught of talented newcomers, coupled with a few talented returning players, Tennessee didn’t live up to full expectations against the Aggies Sunday night, offensively at least.
Just Worley had arguably one of his best starts at quarterback for the Vols Sunday night, and completed all but one pass in the second half alone. Two things about his performance, though. In the first half Worley still showed flashes of that inconsistency we saw a year ago. He forced a few passes, missed some opportunities, just the same song-different verse from what we saw from him a year ago.
Once the second half came around, though, Worley really turned up the heat in the passing game with his completion numbers, but what’s lost in those numbers is how half of those passes were small dumpoffs and screen passes. If he didn’t complete those, the Vols would really be in trouble at the quarterback position this year.
Worley was impressive in his ability to maintain the game Sunday night, though, and his mobility on the field. He wasn’t afraid to tuck the ball and run it on a few read options, unlike a year ago, and he also showed he has the ability to evade pressure from the defensive front a few times against the Aggies by making plays with his feet instead of tucking the ball and taking the sack.
The jury is still out on Worley, but as far as managing the game he’s still the best the Vols have at this point in 2014.
The two major areas the Vols must improve upon over the next two weeks before beginning a grueling stretch of facing Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida in three consecutive weeks are in the trenches on the offensive line, and the run game.
Now to be fair, the run game depends on what the offensive line can give them, but the Vols’ rushing attack was seemingly non-existent Sunday night, and was a shame to see after all the hype built around Jalen Hurd, and returning senior Malin Lane. Nonetheless, a running back can’t really create what isn’t there to begin with.
In order for the Vols to have any success on offense in 2014, this young offense line will have to band together and improve week-after-week, because if they can’t create holes and run the ball, no team will ever respect their passing game which could be lethal with the depth and talent Tennessee has at receiver.
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