published Monday, September 1st, 2014

Tennessee Vols display deeper pool of playmakers

  • photo
    Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson tackles Utah State running back Kennedy Williams.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's offense was far from explosive in Sunday night's season opener.

Yet the Volunteers still showcased a deeper and more versatile group of playmakers in the 38-7 win against the visiting Aggies at Neyland Stadium.

In the first half alone, quarterback Justin Worley completed passes to nine players, something Tennessee did only two times -- against overmatched opponents Austin Peay and South Alabama -- in all of 2013.

For the entire 2013 season, the Vols completed passes to 15 players.

Newcomers Von Pearson and Josh Malone made the first catches of their careers, and Tennessee got tailbacks Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd involved in the passing game. At tight end, Ethan Wolf was targeted on a few play-action rollouts, and Brendan Downs caught a 12-yard touchdown pass, the fourth of the senior's career, in the first quarter.

The Vols finished the first half with just 191 yards of offense on 41 plays and converted just twice on nine third-down plays.

Pearson, a junior college transfer, scored on his debut by taking a bubble screen, making one cut past an oncoming defender and scoring from 14 yards on Tennessee's first possession of the second half.

Sophomore Josh Smith turned a quick throw into a 38-yard gain to set up Tennessee's first touchdown, and classmate Marquez North made a key catch to convert a third down to set up Pearson's score in the third quarter.

Eleven receivers caught passes in the game.

Kicking conundrum

Freshman Aaron Medley edged out redshirt sophomore and Knoxville product George Bullock for the kicking duties, and he certainly had his ups and downs.

Medley, one of the nation's top-rated kickers in the 2014 recruiting class, hit both of his first two kickoffs near the goal line, but he badly missed his first collegiate field-goal attempt, a 41-yarder early in the second quarter.

He bounced back later in the first half to drill a 36-yard kick that put Tennessee up 17-0.

Punter Matt Darr kicked well, hitting his first two boots 53 and 47 yards and pinning Utah State inside its 20-yard line on four occasions in the first half.

Secondary shuffle

The competition for starting spots in Tennessee's secondary continued from preseason training camp well into game week, and the Vols still trotted out an unexpected lineup at the back end.

LaDarrell McNeil, a two-year starter who took minimal first-team repetitions in the month leading up to the season, started at safety, and Michael Williams, a walk-on track athlete who originally signed with Maryland to play football, edged out freshman Emmanuel Moseley to start at cornerback.

Devaun Swafford, who got most of the first-team work at safety leading up to the opener, rotated in on some series in the first half. Williams played most of the first half at corner, even when the Vols went out of their nickel package.

Sunday sellout

The sellout for Sunday night's opener was Tennessee's first since the 2007, when quarterback Erik Ainge threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns in a 39-19 win against Southern Mississippi in front of an announced crowd of 106,311 a week after the Vols lost 45-31 at California to open the season.

Utah State sold only 800 tickets for Sunday night, a Tennessee official told the Times Free Press before kickoff. According to the official, Tennessee originally was approached about playing the game, part of the debut weekend of coverage for the new SEC Network, but wanted to play the game in prime time.

In a similar setting a decade ago, the Vols opened the 2004 season on a Sunday night against UNLV with Knoxville moving Boomsday, its annual Labor Day weekend fireworks, from Sunday night to Saturday night. The Vols won 42-17 in front of 108,625, the fourth-largest crowd in Neyland Stadium history.

Status updates

Offensive lineman Charles Mosley (leg), tailback Derrell Scott (foot), defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (knee) and receiver Johnathon Johnson (ankle) did not play for the Vols due to injuries.

Defensive tackle Jordan Williams was shaken up in the first quarter after a hit on Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton, but he returned quickly. Left tackle Jacob Gilliam, a fifth-year former walk-on making his first start, was hurt on a pass play in the third quarter, and redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick replaced him.

Tennessee tidbits

Former Bradley Central High School offensive line standout Austin Sanders and former Baylor School star linebacker Colton Jumper made their Tennessee debuts in the fourth quarter. ... Tennessee's captains for the game were Worley, center Mack Crowder and defensive tackle Jordan Williams. ... Former Tennessee tight end Jason Witten, who starts his 12th season with the Dallas Cowboys against San Francisco next Sunday, was in attendance for Sunday's game. ... John Henderson, a two-time All-America defensive tackle with the Vols and the ninth pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2002 NFL draft, was scheduled to return to campus for the first time since his career ended in 2001 and be honored as the "legend of the game," but his wife went into labor. ... Scouts from 12 NFL teams were in attendance.

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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