7:30 tonight. *Georgia Dome in Atlanta * ESPNU/106.5 FM
If it's not Tennessee against the Georgia Dome - the Volunteers are 0-6 in the building since 2001 -- it's quarterback Tyler Bray and his Da'Rick Rogers-less receiving corps against the Wolfpack's talented secondary, led by David Amerson. The 6-foot-3 junior cornerback is dubbed the "Pickoff Artist" after his 13-interception 2011 season. N.C. State has two fourth-year starters at safety, and Dontae Johnson, the other corner, has a similar frame to Amerson. Tennessee plans to throw the ball, but Bray must be patient, use his checkdown options and get tight end Mychal Rivera involved. If the Vols are behind the chains or on the scoreboard, the Wolfpack, who had 39 takeaways last season, will have more opportunities to pounce.
One to watch
Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson: The touted junior college transfer is making his NCAA debut tonight, and his expectations, which were already lofty, increased after Rogers' suspension and transfer. He's 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds and has all the physical tools to be an explosive wideout. But is he ready mentally to make a big impact right away?
"We're just going to watch and see how he handles it," said Vols coach Derek Dooley. "We didn't put him as a [starter] because he was a high-profile recruit; we put him as a one because he earned it. Now he's got to go perform, and he knows that.
"There's going to be an element of patience we're going to have to exercise."
In the end
Tennessee's new defense and first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri will have a test of their own to pass against an experienced N.C. State offense, led by a veteran offensive line and fifth-year senior Mike Glennon at quarterback (3,054 yards passing last season). Both programs need a win tonight for the seasons they're aiming to have. The Vols want to erase any lingering memories from last year's debacle, and N.C. State is gunning for its best season under sixth-year coach Tom O'Brien. The offenses should be able to put up points, and the game figures to be close.
Tennessee 31, N.C. State 27
KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's wait is over.
The Volunteers hope the proving is just beginning.
It's been 279 days since they last had a real game, and they left it amid joyous, blue-clad Kentucky fans rushing the field in Lexington last November after the Wildcats snapped a 26-game losing streak in the border-state series.
Since then, Tennessee's gaze has been fixed on tonight's showdown with North Carolina State in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. On a team filled with players with something to prove, the Vols' offensive line might lead the way.
"We're just ready to hit somebody," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "Honestly I feel like as an offensive line, talking about it, we're just ready to go out there and show we can play physical and run the ball."
That's been the aim of Tennessee's front five all offseason, but until the Vols go out and push someone else around, it's all just talk. Most of the discussion about the unit last season was negative. Regardless of how you pass-block, if you're 116th nationally in rushing yards, finish with negative yardage against your two biggest division rivals and struggle to push around the likes of Montana and Middle Tennessee State, such talk is going to happen.
Four of tonight's UT line starters - James, left guard Dallas Thomas, center James Stone and right guard Zach Fulton -- have combined to start 82 career games. Though he's a first-time starter, sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson might have the group's most talent. The Vols views backups Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard as starters.
The formula for success is there.
"[It's] just getting out there and showing the world that we're a different offensive line," Richardson said. "We're going to continue to improve and [show] that we have the talent. We're going to try to be one of the most elite offensive lines in the country."
That'd be quite a jump from last season's disappointment. The cast is the same, but the attitude is different, players and coaches say. Much of that credit goes to first-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
When the 50-year-old replaced the departed Harry Hiestand, he brought a clean slate with him to Tennessee after five seasons at North Carolina, where he was 0-5 against N.C. State.
"I feel like they're playing with a lot more confidence than they had last year, and I think Coach Pittman's got them in there to play with more confidence," said Vols nose tackle Daniel Hood, who moved to defense from offensive line during spring practice last year. "I'd say that's the biggest thing. It's just them having more confidence in what they're doing and not being scared: 'If I make this mistake, I'm getting cussed out for this,' or 'If I do this, I'm getting cussed out for that.'
"I honestly think that they've always wanted to [play physical]. I just think that the new coach has helped them to know that they've earned the right to be confident in what they're doing. That's the biggest mental shift."
Pittman believes his unit is ready both physically and mentally to play and play well.
"Oh yeah, they're ready to go," he said. "I think they're excited about playing. I'm excited to see them play."
Tennessee's biggest emphasis in repairing its run game has been more physical play from the offensive line and running backs. The talk about the attitude change began as early as February. The focus was being more powerful, firing off the ball and winning individual battles.
"I feel comfortable that the kids have bit into what we're trying to teach and what we're trying to preach," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said, "but we've still got to go out and perform. I think it's a maturity thing, and the kids are really trying to be proud of how they show up on tape. I have seen that."
The Vols' linemen said during training camp that they view themselves as tone setters for the offense. They embrace the responsibility of dictating how the offensive players around them perform in practice. It's a mindset they plan to carry over into games.
"That is the truth," Richardson said. "If the offensive line is clicking, then everybody else is clicking. Our skill guys, if we're getting the job done, they're going to make plays. It's all on us."
James said that's been the message from the coaching staff during the long offseason.
"If we're ready and we're leading everybody in the right direction and doing everything we need to do right, everybody will follow," he said. "You enjoy it being in your hands instead of somebody else's. You can just put it all on you, but I feel like as a team and as an offense collectively, we're going to do well."
They don't have to wait any longer to prove it.