Tennessee Football: 5 Things Volunteers Need to Improve on in Week 2
It's probably easy for most fans to look at a 45-0 blowout and point to all that their team accomplished.
But when the opponent is a hapless Austin Peay team that will struggle to have a winning record in the Football Championship Subdivision, though, I'm not sure how much we learned about Tennessee.
Don't get me wrong, a win in which starters play six drives and score six touchdowns and the defense doesn't yield a point is no cause for concern. But there are multiple things the Vols must improve as the competition gets tougher this week against Western Kentucky and especially beyond.
Coach Butch Jones knows it. All week, he's praised everything about the Hilltoppers short of mascot Big Red. A lot of it is coach-speak, sure, but he knows UT has to build off the opener to keep winning.
"Nobody at all in our football program should be satisfied with their performance," he said. "We have a long ways to go."
Here are a few things the Vols need to sharpen.
All quotes were transcribed from press conferences listed on UTSports.com unless otherwise noted.
Justin Worley is under the microscope that comes with being the starting quarterback, so he is going to have every pass attempt scrutinized.
Even though his 11-of-13 debut as "The Man" at the helm of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian's offense was a nice building block, it wasn't as impressive as the numbers suggest.
The junior managed the offense well and even looked adept running the read-option, gaining 21 yards on four carries. But his 104 passing yards easily could have had another 70 tacked on with better-placed footballs.
Marquez North in particular beat his man twice for would-be touchdowns, including on a deep vertical. Both times, Worley's passes could have been caught but were just a bit underthrown. Even on one of his touchdown passes, Worley lobbed it to an open receiver who'd beaten his man. Passes such as those won't cut it against better teams.
"I think it was just particular to that night," Bajakian said. "He's actually pretty good when it comes to his touch and accuracy on deep-ball locations."
It seems like nitpicking to dissect such an efficient performance, but Worley has to work on his placement.
Getting in a Rush
The Vols are close to getting a bunch of help rushing the passer.
Whether that comes this week or not is still up in the air.
According to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan, UT junior linebacker Curt Maggitt—historically the Vols' most disruptive pass-rusher on the roster—is close to returning from the torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last October against Missouri. He could play this week, and so could senior defensive end Jacques Smith, who was injured in the preseason (though that seems less likely).
According to ESPN, Tennessee ranked dead last in the SEC last season with 17 sacks, and though UT sacked the quarterback twice in the opener, it still lacked explosion off the edge. The Vols were without their three best rushers in Maggitt, Smith and freshman end Corey Vereen against APSU.
With priority No. 1 being flustering Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty and helping out the young cornerbacks, the return of any of those three would be a big boost.
Busting Big Plays
When electrifying players such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray left for the NFL after last season, the prominent question was, "Who is going to make game-breaking plays?"
After one game, the concerns linger.
Rajion Neal broke a 47-yard touchdown run early, and it looked like the Vols were going to constantly blow past Austin Peay. Instead, there was just one other offensive play that went more than 20 yards—a 23-yard hookup from Justin Worley to Marquez North. Fifteen plays went for more than 10, but there were few big busters.
Though they dominated, the lack of gash plays was glaring.
Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown wrote this week about the need for "splash plays" in UT's offense. To be fair, UT was very vanilla offensively, and Marlin Lane's 15-yard touchdown run could have gone for 80, as he was untouched, but the point remains.
Now, the Vols must deal with the bad news that special-teams dynamo Devrin Young is going to miss 4-6 weeks with a broken hand suffered in practice, according to the Associated Press. Young broke a 58-yard kick return nearly for a score against the Governors, and his injury leaves UT scrambling for dependable returners.
Shoring Up Short Yardage
It was only a brief hiccup in an otherwise dominant performance, but for an offensive line with so much clout and pride, it was unacceptable.
On the Vols' final touchdown drive late in the second quarter, they had 1st-and-goal from the Austin Peay 2-yard line. Against an inferior team, the Vols should have just steamrolled it into the end zone, especially after demoralizing the Governors on both lines of scrimmage.
Instead, the first two plays went this way:
- Rajion Neal loses a yard.
- Neal runs for no gain.
Austin Peay then called a timeout, and the O-line probably wasn't talking about postgame meals in their huddle. On 3rd-and-goal, the Vols completed a tight end slip-screen to Brendan Downs for a touchdown, but the end to that drive was almost a loss from a physicality standpoint.
An offensive line that wants to prove it's Tarzan can't have lapses where it looks like Jane. That drive was meaningless, but there will be plenty that won't be.
Again, it's a bit of a stretch to say Tennessee's kickoff coverage unit played poorly—it didn't—but the Vols did look loose in allowing a couple of frustratingly longer returns than they would have liked.
Austin Peay had six kickoff returns for 133 yards, and one of those included a couple of broken tackles and gained 36 yards. After special teams coach Mark Elder straightened things out, UT was much better afterward.
The Vols need to keep the consistency it showed after the long one, and senior kicker Michael Palardy was excellent in kicking the ball deep into the end zone and inside the 5. UT isn't talented enough to give up field position on a big return, so the Vols have to keep things tight on special teams.