KNOXVILLE — Art Evans’ moment in the spotlight Saturday night seemed impossible at one point last season.
The Tennessee cornerback returned a pass from Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson 37 yards for a touchdown in the Volunteers’ 42-16 season-opening win at Neyland Stadium. Between his suspension last season and his spot on the depth chart at times during preseason camp, the fifth-year senior’s future at UT was in doubt.
“Give Art a lot of credit because he had every reason to kind of shut it down last year,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “He went through a tough time last year; we signed all these [defensive backs]; he’s a senior. But to his credit, he’s never complained, he’s never griped — he’s just gone to work. He made probably the biggest play of the game. He got rewarded.”
Evans struggled last season and received most of the blame for Alabama receiver Julio Jones’ record night in October. He was suspended for the final five games of the season because of late car payments, and the Vols brought in six defensive backs this February. Star safety Janzen Jackson’s dismissal forced the Vols to move Prentiss Waggner from cornerback to safety, which bumped Evans up to a second-team spot on the depth chart.
In talking about his first career touchdown, which gave UT a 35-9 lead and stemmed Montana’s momentum following a safety, Evans struggled to contain his smile.
“Once the coaches made that adjustment for us, it was easy to make a play,” he said. “I was just happy and excited to make a play, and it’s also good for the offense to see the defense score a touchdown. I was blessed to be back here, and the coaches helped me walk through the whole thing step by step.
“I wanted to come back and not really think about where I was, but come back and go out with a bang and compete because I know I can be a great player here.”
Tailback Marlin Lane probably made the biggest impact of UT’s handful of true freshmen, and the 6-foot, 205-pounder scored a touchdown rushing and receiving. He burst through the line for a 18-yard run on his first carry and made a tough run on a short-yardage situation in the first quarter. He did, however, muff a punt.
The Vols have high expectations for Lane, who finished with 10 carries for 35 yards and two catches for 16 yards.
“Marlin showed what I thought he would,” Dooley said. “He’s got some good ability, scored a couple touchdowns, made some guys miss, had some good tough runs, so he’s going to get better and better, and we need him to.”
Redshirt freshman Matt Darr’s first collegiate punt went only 31 yards, but Montana’s Peter Nguyen muffed it, leading to UT’s first touchdown. The next time the Vols punted, place-kicker Michael Palardy trotted onto the field.
Darr averaged 34 yards on two punts, and Palardy averaged 40.5 yards on his two.
“We had a plan to [use both] depending on the situation,” Dooley said. “Darr, really his punt was the one after the safety, so that was good. We’ve got two good guys there. Matt’s still fine-tuning his operation.”
Dooley usually is fairly reserved, but his sideline attire was anything but quiet. The coach wore vibrant orange pants with a white windbreaker and joked afterward that his wife, Allison, would not allow him to pair a white belt and white shoes with the pants.
The inspiration for the pants, Dooley said, came from watching “The Color Orange,” the documentary about former UT quarterback Condredge Holloway becoming the first black quarterback to play in the Southeastern Conference.
“There’s nothing better than old footage, and I just remember seeing the old footage of the coaches out there and they all had orange pants,” he said.
Redshirt sophomore Eric Gordon was the Vols’ first nickel back on the field, and he finished with four tackles. The departed Jackson had carved out a role as the nickel man.
“Eric was active, but for every play he makes, there’s a mistake thrown in there,” Dooley said. “We’ve just got to get more consistent play out of Eric.”
Dooley said the Vols played half of the time with Gordon as the nickel back. The rest of the time the Vols slid Prentiss Waggner from free safety to cornerback and used true freshman Brian Randolph at safety.
“He’s doing good,” Dooley said. “Brian, we need to keep playing him and we’re going to play him a lot because what he brings is he allows us to use Prentiss where we want to use him. Hopefully if Brian progresses, it’ll give us some flexibility.”
Odds and ends
After a 1-hour, 43-minute delay for a thunderstorm, the Vols did not run out through the giant “T” formed by the Pride of the Southland marching band for just the second time since 1965. The other occasion was in 2006 against Marshall, which saw an afternoon kickoff delayed for storms. ... With his three first-half touchdown passes, Tyler Bray tied Peyton Manning’s record for consecutive games with two more touchdown passes at seven. ... Waggner, Tauren Poole, Dallas Thomas and Ben Martin were UT’s captains. ... Former Ooltewah High star Jacques Smith forced a Montana punt early in the second quarter when he tackled Montana’s Johnson for a 4-yard loss on third down.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...