UT's Rajion Neal
KNOXVILLE -- The Tennessee football team truly spared no situation in its second and final preseason scrimmage.
Two- and four-minute drills? Check. Overtime? Yes. Backed up on the goal line? Done.
The Volunteers even planned a fake injury to quarterback Tyler Bray.
"I went down a series, and [Justin] Worley came in as a starter," Bray said after throwing just 12 passes Friday night at Neyland Stadium. "I had a sprained ankle. It was planned."
The Vols are taking no chances of being as unprepared as they appeared last year, when they scored just 23 points in four Southeastern Conference games after Bray broke his thumb.
Worley, a three-game starter as a freshman, worked a lot with the starting offense Friday. The sophomore completed 15 of 28 passes for 229 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"I thought at some point he needed to get in there with the ones so those guys could feel his command a little bit," coach Derek Dooley said. "He's done a great job. He's made a lot of improvement, and he's moving better in the pocket, he's making the throws he needs to make and he's putting the ball in those guys' hands who can make some big plays."
The biggest play was tailback Devrin Young's 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the second-team defense. Dooley said the offense looked "explosive" before lamenting some communication breakdowns in the secondary. It's the double-edged sword for every college coach in preseason scrimmages.
In giving Worley more work, though, the Vols were aiming to dull the sting of an injury to Bray.
"The one thing I've learned over the years is you better have two quarterbacks going into the season, and I think we've got two pretty good quarterbacks going into the season," Dooley said. "I just felt like Justin needed to have a heavy day out there, and he got it. We needed to go into this season where he's got a little confidence and feels like he can go take command of the offense if he needs to.
"I think the guys on the offense feel like that hopefully we won't miss a beat if he's in there."
Bray threw touchdown passes to Da'Rick Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson, Young and Marlin Lane scored rushing touchdowns and freshman tailback Quenshaun Watson followed up his touchdown run in the first scrimmage with a scoring catch. The Vols worked other players into the starting lineup, including offensive linemen Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard.
Dooley believes the Vols' improved depth will help them handle injury adversity at some positions, but it didn't hurt to prepare for it in a controlled environment.
"I didn't even know what happened until you said it," left tackle Antonio Richardson said. "I was just in there playing. I really didn't even notice, but at any time that could happen, so we've got to work every type of situation that could happen. If it does, Worley, he'll be ready to step in.
"We had more explosive passes than we did runs, which is going to be a big element of our game."
The flip side
Tennessee has yet to whittle down its defensive playbook, and it showed Friday night, when communication breakdowns in the secondary aided some of the offense's big plays. The Vols will begin to pare its defense as they begin to game plan for the Aug. 31 opener against North Carolina State.
The catch-22 from Dooley's perspective requires a review of the video to determine what went wrong.
"Is it because of a talent differential, or is it because we're not playing our defense the way we need to?" he pondered. "I think each play, you say, 'Well, that was a great play, that's tough to defend,' or 'We didn't do anything right on that play; that's on us.' That's just what we've got to do.
"I think it's a combination of both sometimes. We've got a lot in on defense, and we knew we'd be at this point where we've got to go figure out what we're good at and tighten it down. I think that'll help our guys play a little bit better and faster."
The linebackers were positives defensively: A.J. Johnson made 12 tackles and forced a fumble, and Curt Maggitt and Jacques Smith added sacks. Dooley called his starting foursome at the position "the strength of our defense" when healthy.
Herman Lathers rested a strained quadriceps, though he was in good spirits after the scrimmage and indicated he was fine. The secondary, though, left Neyland Stadium knowing where it needs to improve.
"It gets tough at times just seeing so [much] new information coming at you," said safety Byron Moore, who intercepted two passes. "It's going to always need work. It's just a constant thing we're focusing on, communicating in the secondary. We're the last line of defense, so even if we're wrong, coaches always stress to us we're always playing the same coverage so that we're all on the same page.
"We've come along with it pretty well with it since camp has started. It starts with the safeties: We've got to make sure the corners get the calls and make sure the linebackers know which safety's rotating down and stuff like that. It's an all-around group effort."
Michael Palardy made field goals of 33 and 41 yards, making him 6-for-6 in preseason scrimmages. Dooley, though, did not want to jinx anything with his up-and-down kicker. "I'm not going to say anything because you know how this goes," he said. ... Rajion Neal did nothing to hurt his chances of winning the top spot at tailback. Dooley noted Neal's camp consistency and praised an area in which he's improved. "I think he's a lot tougher than he's been," the coach said, "and I think he's still got some improving to do." ... Dooley said he's "really concerned" about depth at inside linebacker and tight end.
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 ...
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