The learning curve is steep in college football. Tennessee Vols fans experienced a tumultuous off-season following the worst season in the history the program. While there wasn’t much reason, there was definitely hope for promising opening game against Big 12 opponent West Virginia in Charlotte for the Belk College Kickoff in Charlotte on Saturday afternoon.
But it was much of the same for the Vols. A sputtering offense. A porous defense. And a disappointed fan base. Here’s how each unit graded out in Saturday’s loss to the Mountaineers.
Tennessee Vols Game Grades West Virginia Edition
Tennessee’s offense showed promise at times but clearly lacked consistency. Jarrett Guarantano took control of the quarterback position and Tim Jordan looked good in relief of an injured Ty Chandler. The offensive line struggled, particularly early. But remember, Tennessee put up 14 points against a Big 12 defense. That’s not a good sign with an SEC schedule coming up.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 172 yards passing.
After the first series, Guarantano looked very comfortable leading the Volunteer offense. Even on the passes he missed, he missed away from the defense. He took care of the ball and avoided the dreaded turnover. His passes were crisp and he generally made the right reads. It was the big loss plays in the running game that killed three Tennessee drives.
Running Backs: B-
Tim Jordan had some very nice runs and finished several with punishing hits. But the running backs in general didn’t demonstrate the ability to make a play on their own or to escape some of the constant pressure from the Mountaineer front seven. Other than a nice catch from Jeremy Banks, they didn’t play much of a role in the passing game, either. Lastly, they didn’t show an overpowering presence in short yardage scenarios. A lot of that depends on the line, admittedly.
It’ll be running back by committee heading forward, particularly if Chandler is out for an extended amount of time.
The receivers were the most consistent group all day. Marquez Callaway was able to convert short range completions all day. Dominick Wood-Anderson caught a nice touchdown pass on fourth down. And there were no egregious drops from the receivers all game.
Offensive Line: D
The offensive line was clearly a liability in Saturday’s loss. West Virginia’s defensive front is decent, but it isn’t as good it looked against the Vols front five. Trey Smith, probably Tennessee’s best player, had two penalties. Brandon Kennedy, the most important of the off-season transfers, struggled early and seemed to have communication issues with right guard Ryan Johnson. It’s hard to tell which of the two missed coverage when the 2-gap was left unblocked multiple times in the first quarter.
Jahmir Johnson, at left guard, had the best day of the front five. Tennessee had success in the second half running to the left and Johnson had two nice seal blocks on pulls as well. Pass protection was better in the second half. If Tennessee is to improve upon last season and break through in the SEC, the line must improve.
West Virginia didn’t do anything anyone didn’t expect. Tennessee just couldn’t stop the Mountaineers, especially in the second half.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Will Grier 429 yards passing.
Defensive Line: C
In addition to Will Grier’s 429 yards through the air, West Virginia managed 118 yards of rushing as well. The defensive front failed to get consistent penetration and Grier had a clean pocket on almost every play.
Shy Tuttle had a strong game, but the group as a whole yielded far too many holes for the Mountaineer rushing game and wasn’t able to make enough plays in short yardage.
Where is Jonathan Kongbo? No pass rush from the edge. No effective run defense on the edge, either. Both the outside linebackers, Kongbo included, and the inside linebackers, were largely quiet today. They were unable to contribute in pass defense and weren’t effective in stuffing the running lanes.
We knew the defensive backs would be tested, but the linebackers were expected to do more. A very disappointing day for this unit.
Defensive Backs: D
Baylen Buchanan and Trevon Flowers were abused by Grier all day. Interestingly, Nigel Warrior struggled all day as well. West Virginia was able to create space and, on the few balls that were contested, go get them from Tennessee defenders. Big plays were the back breaker of the game. During the three-touchdown third quarter, the three drives totaled 2:00, 2:49, and 4:47. West Virginia was able to move the ball down the field through the air effortlessly. Marquill Osborne whiffed on two key tackles. And Tennessee pressure from the secondary off the edge was completely ineffective and resulted in several West Virginia big plays.
Alontae Taylor was the one consistent performer for the Vols secondary.
Special Teams: C-
Joe Doyle was really the only specialist to get much action. His 38 yards per punt average isn’t good, but he did have one good punt inside the 10-yard line. Both kickoff coverage and kickoff return were below average.
Taylor did get his hands on a West Virginia punt, but the ball still managed to make its way down the field.
Jeremy Pruitt‘s first game as a head coach went fairly smoothly as far as game management. His decision to go for the touchdown on fourth down early in the first half paid dividends. Late in the second was an easy call.
It was a different look than last season, for sure. But fans aren’t looking for something different. They are ready to get back to winning football games, and are running out of patience after a decade of irrelevancy.
Pruitt’s staff has shown improvement in development of players in some areas, but has a lot of room to go in other areas, especially in the secondary.
Next week, Tennessee opens their home schedule with a regional match up against East Tennessee State. Much of the pent-up energy was let out of the fan base today. It’ll be important to see how the team responds against an outmatched opponent next week.
They’ll have plenty to work on before they open SEC play against Florida in three weeks.
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