KNOXVILLE — With its passing game scuffling, Tennessee looked to two first-year wide receivers to pick up the slack.
Freshman Josh Smith and junior college transfer Johnathon Johnson both came through with some key receptions as the Volunteers got on track offensively during the third quarter of Saturday afternoon's 52-20 win against Western Kentucky at Neyland Stadium.
The 5-foot-9, 176-pound Johnson hauled in a big 37-yard catch from junior quarterback Justin Worley on Tennessee's opening second-half possession, and Smith caught passes of 12 and 16 yards on the ensuing series as the Vols tacked on two touchdowns to build a 45-20 lead.
"They've done a great job learning the offense and learning the nuances of different routes and progressions and things like that," Worley said. "I'm comfortable throwing to them. That's a big thing, having that chemistry."
Johnson, who caught two passes in the opener, moved up a rung in the slot with the loss of Devrin Young.
"Johnathon, he's a guy that has came a long way," fellow receiver Pig Howard said. "He's always been in his playbook, and we knew when it comes down to it, we can count on him. He played his role good and helped us win.
"He's progressed a lot. At the end of the day, it's all about a mentality regardless of where you come from. He's always been tuned in, buying into what we've asked him to do, and he's not a complainer. He's a hard worker, and it showed."
Smith, a prolific receiver at Christian Academy of Knoxville who was an under-the-radar recruit, finished with three catches for 36 yards and has shown some polish and soft hands in his brief college career.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones singled out both newcomers, saying theys "really stepped up."
"They helped us a lot," Howard said.
Williams steps up
With defensive ends Corey Vereen (knee) and Jacques Smith (thumb) still sidelined, Jordan Williams again started and was in on two key sacks.
He combined with former Gainesville (Fla.) High School teammate Trevarris Saulsberry to sack Brandon Doughty on the play that preceded the Western Kentucky quarterback's interception by Brian Randolph in the end zone in the first half.
Williams' later solo sack forced the Hilltoppers to settle for a field goal after Tennessee took a 38-17 lead in the third quarter.
"We knew we had to get it on [Doughty] all week," Williams said. "I feel like that definitely affected him and maybe helped the turnovers, too. I feel like I've been taking it as an opportunity and just perfecting what I need to do."
Tennessee didn't miss Young much in the return game Saturday.
Receivers Vincent Dallas and Jacob Carter filled in nicely in the absence of the junior from Knoxville, who broke his hand in practice last week and will miss four to six weeks. Dallas and Carter handled return-game roles for the first time, and Jones said he was "very, very pleased" by their performances.
Dallas returned his first kickoff 34 yards to Tennessee's 37-yard line and ran back the opening kickoff of the second half 36 yards to the Vols' 41, which set up an important scoring drive.
Carter, tabbed as Young's replacement to return punts due to his ability to field them the most cleanly and consistently, had returns of 11 and 9 yards.
"I think Vincent has to make a decision when to bring it out and not, but I thought he did a great job," Jones said. "I thought Jacob, we ask for a high level of consistency back there, and that's Jacob Carter. He did a nice job."
Smith, who had the pins removed from his broken thumb Wednesday, did not play Saturday. Linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee) dressed and was moving around fairly well during pregame warmups but also did not play.
Jones said Maggitt was "close" to playing "but not quite there yet," and the coach expects Smith to return for next week's trip to third-ranked Oregon.
Backup linebacker Greg King, who plays on a couple of Tennessee's special-teams units, came out of the locker room at halftime on crutches with a walking boot on his left foot.
Tennessee's captains for the game were linebackers A.J. Johnson and Dontavis Sapp, right tackle Ja'Wuan James and defensive tackle Daniel Hood. ... The Vols were flagged for the first time this season with 34 seconds left in the first half, when defensive end Corey Miller delivered a late hit on Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty. ... Cam Sutton's interception return for a touchdown was the first by a Tennessee true freshman since Eric Berry's 96-yard pick-six at Florida in 2007. ... The Hilltoppers' blocked punt late in the second quarter was the first against the Vols since Georgia got one in the third quarter of last season's game. ... Rajion Neal's three-touchdown game rushing was the first such performance since Montario Hardesty ran in a trio of touchdowns against Kentucky in 2009.
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 ...