Okay, all of the standard spring game caveats apply to this quick evaluation of Tennessee's Orange and White Game yesterday: it's us against us; you never know if the guy who won that play is that good or if the guy who lost is that bad; the defense was vanilla. Etc., etc., etc.
But all of that aside, I was actually pleasantly surprised with yesterday. If the offensive line can hold its own, I think the team is going to be okay, and while I wouldn't expect to set the world on fire this fall, I'm not sure it's fair to expect the worst season ever, either.
Most Valuable Player. Chris Walker, who drafted a white team that was strong, relatively speaking, on both sides of the line. His defensive line included three starters: himself and tackles Montori Hughes and Marlon Walls. His offensive line included center Victor Thomas, tackles Ja'Wuan James and Daniel Hood, and guards Kevin Revis and Jarrod Shaw. The relative strength of the lines was probably the key to the white's victory, but Walker also managed to land team leaders Tauren Poole, Janzen Jackson, and Denarius Moore and promising newcomers Matt Milton, Tyler Bray, Darren Myles, and Ted Meline. There's surely some strategy involved in drafting a team like that, and Walker had it figured out.
Watching the game, it seemed as if true freshman Tyler Bray had the best day, but some of that could have been the team that Walker assembled, including the offensive line to protect Bray and the defensive line to trouble junior college transfer Matt Simms. Bray went 18-40 for 200 yards, one TD, and zero interceptions, and Simms went 12-26 for 125 yards, one TD, and three interceptions. About those interceptions, though: Dooley said that the first might have just been a good play by safety Darren Myles, and to me it looked like a tie ball that should have gone to the offense. Dooley called the second interception a "shot play," which I take to mean a low-risk, high-reward play in that it was a deep ball to a streaking receiver, and Dooley said that DB Stephaun Raines made a good play on it. The third interception was, according to Dooley, the only interception that was clearly a bad decision. Add to that that Bray had one ball thrown directly to defender Rod Wilks dropped, and the QB battle looks much more even than it felt yesterday. In any event, the signal-caller position is officially up for grabs, which should keep both guys motivated throughout the summer.
Offensive line. As noted earlier and as expected, both offensive lines had their problems against some key players along the defensive line. Simms was sacked five times and probably would have been down three other times if not for his green no-contact jersey. At times, though, they held their own despite having an already thin unit divided between two teams. The best news of the day is that Victor Thomas's injury appears to be only a hyper-extended knee, which shouldn't be a long-term problem. That, and the fact that Thomas and Cody Pope have been told by Dooley that "[i]f [they] are not getting a hundred snaps everyday then [they] are working for Florida."
Running backs. Tauren Poole is the clear starter at this position. He rushed for 43 yards and caught three balls for another 58 yards. He was powerful, fast, and elusive, and he rarely let the first guy get him down. "Tauren has made big plays in every scrimmage -- the spring game and the two scrimmages -- and he did it again today," Dooley said. "I'm really pleased with how he's running the ball. We still need David Oku to come on, and I think he will, but I'm really pleased with Poole. Poole's got great character; he's a hard worker, a hard runner; he can go out and do some things in the pass game, and he breaks a lot of tackles. He's going to be a real key for us this year." And, hey, did you know that Poole averaged 8.5 yards per carry last season, better than both Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown? Yeah, he only carried 10 times, and small sample size and all that, but could it be that he just didn't get the opportunities last year? He's looking like he's every bit as good as those guys.
Receivers. As a whole, this unit looked pretty good. Gerald Jones had six catches for 84 yards, Matt Milton had six catches for 47 yards, and Denarius Moore had three catches for 39 yards. Jones at times looked like he was having trouble getting separation from the defensive backs, but that could be that the DBs are good or that the quarterbacks were late delivering the ball as much as it could be a negative for Jones, and in any event, he had the best day of any receiver, and he had a couple of really nice catches in traffic despite being tightly covered most of the day. Tight end Luke Stocker, who figures to be a key component of the offense this fall, did not play due to a shoulder issue. It's apparently not serious.
Defensive line. It should come as no surprise that the defensive lines generally did better than their offensive counterparts. Montori Hughes was a monster and appears ready to pick up right where Dan Williams left off. John Adams humorously observed about Hughes that "[d]ouble-teaming him was just as apt to multiply the number of blockers at fault as to prevent him from disrupting a play."
Chris Walker had one sack on Matt Simms that wasn't actually called but should have been. What was odd was that he played on the left end after spending last season at right end. Not sure why that was. You'd think that he'd be our best end and that they'd put the best end on the right side, but there he was on the left.
In addition to being named one of three winners of the "Big Lick Award," Jacques Smith earned a great deal of praise from Derek Dooley. "These midyear guys are just incredibly mature, but Jacques played probably the most consistently of all those young cats," Dooley said. "He's a good, physical presence. He's got a great attitude and great character, and I've just been impressed with his consistency over 15 practices. That's not an easy thing to do, I'm telling you."
Dooley still wants some bigger bodies on defense and is willing to feed them buckets of fried chicken to get them there.
Linebackers. These guys looked fine, but other than a few pretty nice hits, nothing really stood out to me as overly special. It was really good to see LaMarcus Thompson out there again, and when Nick Reveiz comes back at full speed this fall, this unit should be strong, experienced, and disciplined.
Defensive backs. This unit had a very good day, intercepting Simms three times and generally getting great coverage on the receivers. Janzen Jackson also returned two punts for 43 yards, and although he bobbled one of them, he recovered quite nicely, and showed fantastic speed up the middle for a nice gain. Dooley also praised Jackson's character, which is really good to hear. "I've seen nothing but a great smile, a phenomenal attitude, a phenomenal work ethic," Dooley said. "We're working very hard to support him off the field. He's been great. He's been a real treat to coach. I hope he continues to do that and I expect him to." Dooley is also high on Darren Myles, calling both Jackson and Myles "pleasant surprises or things I feel good about in the spring."
Harvey Robinson Award -- Dallas Thomas. Presented to the offensive surprise of spring.
Andy Spiva Award -- Austin Johnson. Presented to the defensive surprise of spring.
Big Lick Award -- Gerald Jones, Eric Gordon and Jacques Smith. Presented to the players who consistently play with the most physical toughness.
Fourth Quarter Award -- Tauren Poole, Luke Stocker, LaMarcus Thompson and Darren Myles Jr. Presented to the players who consistently compete with the intangible values that provide the foundation of the Tennessee Football Program: attitude, discipline, toughness, effort and team
John Stucky Off-Season Award -- Cody Pope and Willie Bohannon Presented to the players who demonstrate the best physical and mental conditioning during the off-season program.