GAINESVILLE, Fla. — What a difference a year makes.
In its first three SEC road games of 2012, Tennessee scored 44, 31 and 35 points and averaged 437 yards of total offense.
In two road games against ranked competition this season, the Volunteers have combined for 31 points and 536 yards.
Aside from the 45-point first half against overmanned Austin Peay, the second half of the win against Western Kentucky and the occasional drive here and there against Florida and Oregon, it's been a struggle for Tennessee's offense, which entered the fourth quarter of Saturday's 31-17 loss at the 19th-ranked Gators with 96 yards on 38 plays.
For some of the holdovers from a year ago, the production in the season's first four games has been frustrating.
"A little bit," tailback Rajion Neal admitted after a 12-carry, 42-yard game against Florida, "but there's still time to change it and go back to the drawing boards.
"But it's frustrating," he added after a brief pause.
Given what Tennessee lost at quarterback and receiver and the defenses at Oregon and Florida, the struggles were to be expected.
Receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter were taken in the first 34 picks of April's NFL draft, tight end Mychal Rivera went in the sixth round and quarterback Tyler Bray made Kansas City's roster as a third quarterback after he went undrafted.
Had Zach Rogers redshirted in 2009, when he caught three passes as a true freshman, he'd provide a veteran presence this receiving corps desperately needs. Tennesse's wideouts did make some nice plays in the second half on Saturday, but there's been plenty of inconsistency and too many dropped passes.
The Vols feel they have some good players there, but the youth and inexperience have showed.
"We do have some young guys and whatnot, but they're getting better each and every day, and we just plan on pushing forward and learning from our mistakes," slot receiver Pig Howard said.
"We're too close of a team and we've all been through adversity, and at the end of the day, we plan [to] keep pushing. It's not going to break us at all. It's going to make us. We've faced two good teams that our on our schedule, and we plan on focusing on next week."
The Vols benefited from the return of Howard, who had catches of 27 and 29 yards in addition to an 18-yard touchdown catch, and freshmen Marquez North (32 yards) and Jason Croom (24) made plays down the field.
"For us to continue to move forward, they have to continue to get better," first-year Vols coach Butch Jones said of the receivers.
"This is a new group, and they're continuing to get better. But again, it's all coming together and it's work in progress. We have to get better in a hurry."
The biggest dropoff, though, has been at quarterback.
Tennessee's coaching staff felt it wasn't getting the play it needed from Justin Worley, so it opened up the starter's job, and Nathan Peterman earned the spot in practice last week.
After a 31-yard, four-turnover first half with the redshirt freshman in his first start in a loud, hostile environment against one of the SEC's best defense, the Vols reinserted Worley, who completed eight of his first 13 passes and orchestrated two drives that ended in 10 points.
However, the Vols remain unsettled at quarterback and still are searching for their offensive identity.
"It's a work in progress," Worley said. "I think we really grew up in the second half. We came out and we knew we had a fighting chance, and we really came out and put our head down and went. That was good to see, we've got to build on it and continue this week.
"I think we're a play here and there or a catch or a broken tackle from being really explosive."
Through four games this season, the Vols have just 12 plays of 20 or more yards after recording 66 such big plays in 2012, and the lack of what Jones calls "splash plays" played a part in the decision to reexamine the quarterback situation.
Yet the Vols know plenty of season still lies ahead of them.
"There's no frustration," tailback Marlin Lane. "We're just trying to work every day and every week to get better. I see each week we're getting better and playing for each other. That's all our goal is, to play for each other and stick our head down and don't look at the scoreboard."
Said Neal: "You've just got to stay under your coaches. You've got to keep believing, you've got to keep fighting and you've just got to leave it here. As simple as that."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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