Tennessee’s game on Saturday against Indiana State was much more about the rest of the season than it was about the Sycamores.
There’s not much we can learn about the Vols when you play against a Football Championship Subdivision team that is drastically overmatched from the opening kickoff and win 42-7.
This was more about UT executing its offense, gaining valuable reps for guys who need to provide depth through the grueling stretches of the season and about rebounding from a horrific defensive performance in a fortunate season-opening win over Georgia Tech.
Though, again, there were warts, it was mostly mission accomplished in all three phases.
**CAVEAT: We all know this was Indiana State. Still, if we’re going to discuss the negative (and, Lord knows we’ve done that) we need to harp on the good, too.**
With Evan Berry out and watching from the sideline, the Vols placed dynamic freshman Ty Chandler back to field the opening kickoff. Ninety-one yards later, it was 7-0 Tennessee, and it was on.
Was it always pretty? No. Quinten Dormady didn’t feel the pressure on one occasion and lost a fumble that wound up turning into a touchdown after a few Sycamores plays. He also threw a terrible interception in the end zone that never should have been released. The Vols had some golden opportunities to hit big plays downfield, but twice Dormady overthrew Josh Palmer — who consistently beat defenders downfield all day — and Jarrett Guarantano had a pass dropped by Jeff George on a good pass downfield. And that was only in the first half.
The Sycamores got the edge far too much on jet sweeps, turning it upfield for considerable gains on running plays, and even though ISU finished 0-of-11 on third-down conversions, it wasn’t always dominating for Tennessee’s defense. Still, you’re being too picky if this performance disappointed you.
Jonathan Kongbo and Kyle Phillips played much better than they did a week ago, and UT nearly had double-digit tackles for a loss. Bituli continued to prove he’s a playmaker, and the Vols defensive line bounced back a bit.
But with the negative out of the way, the Vols performed plenty well enough to satisfy the masses and provide a positive tune-up prior to the Florida game. The only worrisome injury occurred when backup tight end Eli Wolf went out in the first quarter and finished the game on crutches, watching from the sideline.
Everything else was OK. Special teams were brilliant, including Trevor Daniel’s titanium leg and punt returner Marquez Callaway giving UT great starting field position a couple of times.
UT still looked too slow at times on defense, but the Vols played a lot of guys, and they did swarm to the football. Daniel Bituli again proved he belongs somewhere on the football field at all times. You simply can’t take one of your three best playmakers (along with Darrell Taylor and Nigel Warrior) off when your defense is lacking speed and difference-makers.
The biggest excitement, at least to me, came for Tennessee on offense. Would I have liked to see UT have a few more explosion plays downfield, hitting Palmer on a big pass play or two? Absolutely. That would have made it a perfect day. Would I have liked to see Guarantano take off and display his dual-threat dynamics? Sure, that would have been nice, too.
But the Vols played the methodical game to perfection. This offensive line is playing terrific for the most part, especially the interior. That’s where senior center Jashon Robertson, freshman Trey Smith, junior Jack Jones and redshirt sophomore Venzell Boulware all flashed all day. Those guys are opening up huge holes, and John Kelly blew threw them. When Kelly needed a breather, the Vols showed they’ve got some explosion behind him with freshman Ty Chandler and sophomore Carlin Fils-aime.
While we’re there, Fils-aime?!?!?! Where did that come from? All through the preseason, people were discrediting his role in this offense, saying Chandler was going to blow by him on the depth chart. Maybe he has. But that doesn’t mean Fils-aime should spend all his time on the sideline. He proved that on Saturday, finishing a touchdown run by punishing a middle defender, then blowing through a gaping hole on his second scoring run to prove he’s got some speed and shake to go along with the power he displayed for an undersized guy on that first run.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited. Yes, the guys who are supposed to show out did well, especially John Kelly. Dormady had some good moments and some not-so-great moments, and the Vols found other weapons in the passing game as Callaway was relatively quiet. When Dormady finally found him, he took his reception in for a touchdown, but Tennessee’s receiving corps proved they could make plays, too.
Yes, it was against Indiana State, and no, it wasn’t the 50-point performance we all wanted to see, but the Vols got to sit a bunch of players who were battling injuries, and they got to rotate in a bunch of subs, too. They also came out fairly healthy.
With Florida sitting this week due to Hurricane Irma, all of this was important. Does this team look ready to play the Gators? In the Swamp? That’s up in the air. There are still mistakes to be fixed, plays to be made, depth to be displayed and some gaps to fill.
But Saturday did nothing to prove that Tennessee has serious problems. If anything, it showed the Vols are talented, even though they’re young, inexperienced and make a lot of mistakes.
The Vols proved what they had from a grit-and-grind perspective in Week 1. All we could see this week was they took care of business the way they were expected to against a bad team.
The real test about what this season is going to look like comes in Gainesville next week. Unfortunately for UT, it comes — like most years — before all the kinks can be worked out. But the Gators have their fair share of question marks, too, especially after Michigan looked like anything but world-beaters against Cincinnati this week.
Saturday was about what the Vols could become as we wind toward the meat of the season. It was about what they are now and where they need to go. There’s a long way left until this is a team that can reach its potential, but the potential is there.
So, if you choose to be critical of this team, that’s your prerogative. If you choose to be excited about the possibilities, that’s your choice, too. As of now, the best any of us can be is cautiously optimistic. This is a team that will be carried by Kelly and can be efficient with good quarterback play and timely defensive stops.
If either of those last two things are absent, it’s going to be hard to win. But Saturday shouldn’t give you any pause about the possibilities of what Tennessee’s ceiling is in 2017.