published Monday, November 26th, 2012

Vols looking forward UT players assess disappointing season

Tennessee defensive lineman Jordan Williams (54) chases Kentucky tailback Raymond Sanders III.
Tennessee defensive lineman Jordan Williams (54) chases Kentucky tailback Raymond Sanders III.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

VOL ARRESTED

Tennessee tight end Brendan Downs was arrested early Sunday morning and charged with public intoxication and underage consumption. The sophomore from Bristol, who will turn 20 in May, played in 10 games this season after returning quickly from a dislocated kneecap suffered in an August scrimmage. He caught three passes for 39 yards and scored his first career touchdown against Georgia State in September.

KNOXVILLE — Jordan Williams was the last Tennessee football player to leave the interview room underneath Neyland Stadium's northeast corner after the Volunteers ended the season by beating Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.

Asked to sum up his reflections on the tumultuous season that featured missed opportunities, one notably embarrassing defeat and the dismissal of another head coach, Williams perhaps said it best.

"Where we could've been, but you can't really look back on that," the sophomore linebacker pondered aloud.

"Everybody had high expectations at the beginning of the season. I still think back on the Florida game and how that could have gone different. I think we've just got to look forward to next year."

The Vols suffered through the program's third consecutive losing season -- the first time that's happened in more than a century -- and missed a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time in more than three decades. Needing wins to return for his fourth season at the helm of Tennessee's program, Derek Dooley was unable to deliver them. He was dismissed by athletic director Dave Hart eight days ago, and the Vols finished up against the Wildcats with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney calling the shots as interim coach.

It was the Vols' first missed opportunity that might have been the biggest.

The buzz returned to the Tennessee program following a season-opening win against North Carolina State in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on that opening Friday night. Two weeks later, the Vols were ranked for the first time in more than four years and hosting ESPN's College GameDay with rival Florida visiting Knoxville. After 40 minutes in front of a boisterous crowd thirsting for a big-time victory, Tennessee led 20-13.

Then Trey Burton, the Gators' do-it-all offensive standout, slithered through a hole and outran Marsalis Teague for an 80-yard touchdown.

It opened the floodgates for Florida to win that game going away and for the rest of the SEC against the Vols' defense, which under first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri finished last in the SEC and 109th nationally in yards allowed and gave up 37 or more points to all but one SEC opponent.

One season after it finished in the top 30 nationally in yards allowed, Tennessee allowed the most points (428) and yards (5,672) in program history, surpassing the marks of the 2007 defense that allowed 46 fewer points and 26 fewer yards in two more games.

"It was a lot of different things," Williams said. "Sometimes it was people not knowing where they were supposed to be and missing assignments, and other times it was just one missed tackle that would cause a long ball. I'm really not sure, and I can't put a finger on why."

A record-setting offense couldn't overcome its defensive counterparts. In yards and touchdowns, quarterback Tyler Bray's season was surpassed only by Peyton Manning' 1997 campaign. A year removed from a major knee injury, Justin Hunter submitted the program's eighth 1,000-yard season by a receiver, and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson broke the program's single-season all-purpose yardage mark and scored touchdowns four different ways.

"Last year, our offense was bad," Hunter said. "It just flip-flopped this year, and it was real hard for us. It was kind of stressful."

Behind the production of its big three, the consistency of receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera, the steadiness of an talented and motivated offensive line and the rejuvenation of a backfield by new running backs coach Jay Graham, the Vols' offense averaged 476 yards and 36 points per game and neared the program's record for most yards in a season set 15 years ago.

"What you're seeing today is a byproduct of three long years of nurturing [and] of learning," Chaney said. "We had a lot of bumps and bruises along the way offensively. But these kids that are playing on the field right now are juniors and seniors as opposed to freshmen and sophomores that they had been previously.

"I think this familiarity with what we do and their belief in what we do systematically helped us, and I couldn't be more pleased with how they went out played. As an offensive coordinator, you strive for the perfect game. That never happened for us.

"It never did, but we had times that we looked pretty doggone good out there."

It's when they didn't, though, that were the most harmless. With chances to tie, win or close out games in the fourth quarter against Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri, Tennessee came up empty. A third straight 31-point loss to Alabama and the embarrassing loss at Vanderbilt had the Vols 0-7 in the SEC before the Kentucky win.

"I don't know if there was just one thing, but we missed out on a lot of opportunities and that's what happened," said fullback/tight end Ben Bartholomew. "It is hard to believe. We had a lot of expectations, and I think we had a lot of potential, but we didn't capitalize on it.

"That's all right, that's how things play out, but I think we have a great team and I think our bond is really good."

That bond was tested throughout as the speculation swirled around Dooley's future, and Tennessee's players deserve credit for how they dealt with distractions and handled what had to be a challenging situation, one that Tennessee's players thought would never happen.

"I thought this year was it," Williams said. "It has to happen now, you know?"

about Patrick Brown...

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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