published Sunday, August 31st, 2014

New Vols, old nerves as season finally begins

Tennessee freshman tight end Ethan Wolf, left, will get his first taste of big-time college football tonight when the Vols host Utah State to open the 2014 season.
Tennessee freshman tight end Ethan Wolf, left, will get his first taste of big-time college football tonight when the Vols host Utah State to open the 2014 season.
Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

UTAH STATE (0-0) AT TENNESSEE (0-0)

7 p.m. * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * SEC Network/106.5 FM

THE MATCHUP

If there is known on Tennessee's team of unknowns, it's that the Vols are the most talented at wide receiver, and if their new-look offensive line holds up and quarterback Justin Worley does his part, the Vols could exploit Utah State's secondary.

The Aggies were eighth nationally in run defense last season and return more in the front seven, anchored by veteran linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Zach Vigil, than in the secondary. Utah State lost its best safety and top three cornerbacks from a group that allowed seven 250-yard passing games in 2013 and could start former Vol Daniel Gray and true freshman Jalen Davis at corner.

Marquez North, Pig Howard and Josh Smith should be reliable targets for Worley, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Jason Croom is a middle-of-the-field and red-zone threat and newcomers Von Pearson and Josh Malone can stretch the field.

ONE TO WATCH

The Aggies could have the best player on the field Sunday night in quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The primary question with the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, though, is how he'll play for the first time roughly 11 months removed from a significant knee injury.

Keeton tore his ACL and MCL against BYU last October in the Aggies' sixth game after an impressive sophomore season in 2012 (307 yards of offense per game) and a blazing start to 2013 (18 touchdown passes to two interceptions). Given how bad Tennessee was against athletic quarterbacks of Keeton's ilk last season, he may not need to be all the way back to his old self to power Utah State's offense, which is breaking in four new starters on the offensive line.

The Vols roundly believe they're better-equipped to handle mobile quarterbacks, but Keeton will provide a stiff test to that theory.

IN THE END

With what's ahead on the schedule and the impressionable youth of its team, Tennessee needs this one if the Vols are going to reach their preseason goal of making a bowl game for the first time since 2010. Utah State is looking to finally break through against one of the big boys after losing at Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Auburn, Wisconsin and Southern California on the road by a combined 24 points the past five seasons.

Tennessee is expecting a tough game, so the Vols certainly won't be overlooking the dangerous Aggies, who are 27-13 over the past three seasons. A popular upset pick among the national pundits this week, the Vols should have enough to edge the Mountain West title contenders.

Prediction: TENNESSEE 35, UTAH STATE 30

KNOXVILLE — The new season of college football is under way, and there's probably not a Division I team newer than the Tennessee Volunteers.

Amid the nearly two dozen first-year players filling roles across the field and the new casts on the offensive and defensive lines, there will be jitters, butterflies in the stomach and anxiety for the Vols when they open the 2014 season against Utah State tonight.

Even Butch Jones, Tennessee's steely-eyed second-year coach, won't be immune to the nerves.

"My nerves are 24-7," Jones said this past week, "but really it's in preparation throughout the entire week that you're preparing your team, that you're putting them in every situation that they could possibly have happen to them on game day.

"I get nervous for practice, of good practices and making sure we've done our due diligence. Game day, your mind's going a million miles an hour of managing the game and all that.

"For me, it's probably 24 hours."

For the many Tennessee freshmen making their much anticipated debuts in a sold-out Neyland Stadium, the nerves started not long after the Vols turned their attention fully to the dangerous Aggies, who come to Knoxville looking for the program's second SEC scalp and first since 1970.

"I'm definitely going to be nervous before my first game," rookie tailback Jalen Hurd said. "Yes, I will be nervous, but that's for every football game. You always get a little nervous, but that nervousness is really excitement and the excitement to play the game and be out there with my team."

  • photo
    Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton returns to the playing field for the first time in almost a year tonight against Tennessee after his 2013 season was cut short by a serious knee injury.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Vols have multiple clocks inside the Anderson Training Center counting down, to the tenth of a second, to tonight's kickoff, but the hours this morning and afternoon at the team hotel may feel twice as long as the month of buildup to a season opener.

"Everything you work for in the weight room, that's for that debut that you're going to get," freshman tight end Ethan Wolf said, "and it's finally here, so I'm going to have to make the most of it."

Cornerback Cam Sutton was in those cleats a year ago, when the freshman started in his debut against Austin Peay.

"There's always first-game chills, first-game nerves," said the 2013 All-SEC freshman team selection. "Once you get that first contact, once you see the crowd all hyped and making a lot of noise for you, that momentum and all the rest of the nerves go out the window. I kind of just preach to them, 'Stay calm, be confident' -- just play their game and they'll be fine."

Defensive tackle Jordan Williams was 45 pounds lighter when he was a freshman in 2011, when Tennessee beat Montana to open the season.

"It's unreal," the senior said, "but the thing is, you've got to appreciate that and snap back into it and say, 'I've got a game to play.'

"It's going to hit them all so fast. They're going to be walking down the 'Vol Walk,' and it's going to be shocking to them. Then running out the 'T,' that's going to be something else. It's got to become real at some point, and it's going to become real pretty fast. They just have to trust in their training. That's the biggest thing."

Asked if he thought playing in front of a loud crowd inside a 102,455-seat stadium would be shocking to Utah State, Jones joked that he was worried about the "shock value" of his own players. Many of them will be playing in front of the biggest crowd in their football careers, even larger than the 69,000 who saw Tennessee's spring game or the estimated 40,000 who came to an open practice three weeks ago.

They'll have to play to their best, too.

"I expect them to play like veterans," safety Brian Randolph said. "We feel like we did a good job of getting them prepared. They know everything they need to know about the defense and stuff like that, so we feel like they can play like veterans.

"I'll just try to talk to them and let them know I know what they're feeling. It was like that for my freshman year. I went out there with big eyes and stuff like that. I'll tell them it's still the game you've been playing since you were a little boy, and ain't nothing's changed."

The high-strung Jones smiled as he revealed he's the calmest after games are over.

The relaxing doesn't last very long, though.

"A lot of things that people don't realize about the life of a coach is your losses stay with you," Jones said. "When you win a game, you probably enjoy it in the locker room, the celebration with the team, and then all of a sudden your mind already flips to the next opponent.

"The losses, the defeats, they live with you. They never leave you. The victories, they leave you in about 10 minutes, and you're always on to the next game."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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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