Tennessee Volunteers Opening Game: Lessons Learned

What is the best part of yesterday's game?  To me, it's having actual answers and not just questions.

As we all know, an opening game against an obviously outmatched opponent isn't the place to gauge the actual quality of your team.  (Well, certain exceptions can be made if you don't reasonably fit expectations.)  But it's football nonetheless and, if you're careful to stay within context, you can draw some conclusions about a team that are more than raw speculation.

The big thing to remember right now is that we can't judge upside on this team.  We can, however, set a lower baseline on downside.  In a game like this, a team's fundamentals are on display.  Control of the offense by the quarterback, discipline on the offensive line, tackling fundamentals, and general execution can all be judged by a low-end bar:  are they or are they not that bad?  In the Mississippi Rebels and Kansas Jayhawks games alluded to above, the conclusion is that the teams have serious problems to worry about.  The bar was low, and they failed to clear.  Even in the Florida Gators game, there were problems exposed that, if not fixed quickly, could become nightmares for their season.  Those are the things we're looking for.

For the Tennessee Volunteers, there are quite a few conclusions to draw.  We can't go all WOO! NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP HERE WE COME!!! over the results, but we're far, far away from our worst fears as well.  Let's take a look at a few aspects of the game, leaning heavily on the observations of our collectively brilliant readership.




COACHING

Let's first look at the top, with Derek Dooley.  In a game like this, we're looking at the simple things.  Is the team organized on the sideline?  How is clock management?  Do the play calls make sense?  How is the balance between ensuring a win and running up the score?  On these counts, Dooley looked as good as any experienced coach.  That's not to say that he necessarily "won" any opinion, but he didn't lose either.  Perhaps the most telling evidence was the near-complete lack of comments of the head coach in our game threads (first or second half).  In a game where you can win simply by leaning on your physical advantages, that's plenty satisfactory.

In other notes, the team only had one delay of game penalty (near the beginning of the second quarter) and two false starts.  That's not too shabby for two new quarterbacks and a new offensive line.  The grain of salt is that the playbook was simplified, but even at that, few penalties is a good thing.  There were three illegal formation penalties, but no defensive penalties (more on that later).

Now, let's skip Jim Chaney and the offensive coaching for a bit.  We just didn't see anything in this game that can teach us about the offensive coaches.  The biggest offensive coaching lesson learned?  Mind the corners of the endzone.

Heading to the defense, Justin Wilcox's debut was a success.  Yes, Martin was outmatched.  Yes, we played defensive ends as defensive tackles and still out-muscled their offensive line.  Yes, the secondary wasn't tested.  But the team played with discipline (see the 'zero defensive penalties' mentioned earlier) and tackled really well.  Quoth our own Incipient Senescence:

The defense is extremely fundamentally sound. Chavis was good at getting people in spots that confused the offense and gave us advantages, but his players missed a lot of tackles and couldn’t handle basic situations like 3rd and long. Tonight, I don’t think I saw a missed tackle all night, and their only third and long conversion may well have been accidental.

Like the head coaching evaluations, our lack of anything tangible to criticize speaks the loudest.  We'll learn a lot more as we face better competition, but we do now know that the team can play disciplined, smart football (even if it was a simplified defensive playbook).

QUARTERBACK

Again with the context, but neither Matt Simms nor Tyler Bray looked flustered on the field.  We know that, at least on this elementary level, they were not overwhelmed.  We don't know their ceiling, but we know that the basement isn't that deep.

The big concern with Simms was his tendency to float the ball.  Quoth Graysnail:

Simms is pretty consistently high with his passes and I’m not sure why. This was a problem even in the first quarter. I’m also partially blaming him for Gerald Jones’ injury, since that ball was a bit underthrown; Jones had to slow down a bit to catch it (distance was good, location was not) which allowed his defender to come up. I’d love to chalk it up to nerves, but I suspect there’s more than a touch of general inaccuracy that needs to be worked out.

That could easily have been nerves.  No matter the cause, though, we'll now have to watch and see if the inaccuracy was a blip on the radar or if it was a legitimate concern for the season.  Simms finished with 58% passing, 1 TD and zero INTs, but that could easily have been over 70% if the passes were on target.

RUNNING BACK

We expected the running backs to be a strength this season, and we have no reason to change that expectation.  How good are they?  We have to wait for better defenses.  How bad are they?  Not bad enough to trip any radars on Saturday.  Tauren Poole and David Oku did very well in the primary roles (and Oku ran quite nicely between the tackles, which was heartening).  But the one underplayed story was Toney Williams, who saw three second-half runs for eight yards.  Remember that he had missed last season due to a torn ACL.  Just being on the field and playing is a huge chunk of good news for the guy, and he deserved a little more recognition for it.

Also, Rajion Neal looked really good.  Context, etc., but he did keep his balance nicely after initial contact and turned in a nice 9 carry, 79 yard performance with one 40-yard dash.  He'll be exciting to watch as he develops.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The blocking schemes were well-hidden on Saturday, but the short story is that the offensive line didn't give us any more reason to worry.  They executed well as a unit and only incurred the penalties mentioned above.  For first-game jitters for five new starters, that's not bad.

The biggest question remaining is that of shotgun formations.  The team ran very little shotgun, in part for the same reason that Florida struggled:  center Cody Pope is in his first year at the position.  Snapping the ball isn't quite as simple as it looks, and it's very easy for a center to overthink the play (first step, blocking, second level, etc.) and neglect the snap.  The lack of shotgun was partly to hide the playbook, but more importantly to not expose a snapping problem.  Pope can use the extra week to improve his snapping.

DEFENSE (UNIT-WISE)

Again, we just won't know with this unit until they play Oregon.  They only recorded one sack, but a small reason for the low number was the UT-Martin 17-step dropback.  Upside?  It's hard to be efficient in your passing game when you're throwing from 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage.  11/26 passing and 2 INTs will speak to that.

The linebackers and secondary were virtually untested last night, so unit-specific information is almost nonexistent.  One player should be mentioned:  Tyler Wolf, who played in second half action, was all over the field.  Well, let's mention two:  Austin Johnson had a great day in his transition from fullback to linebacker, including a nifty diving interception.

DEFENSE (GENERIC)

You have to love the good discipline on the night.  Zero penalties and virtually zero broken/missed tackles.  I was most impressed by their hands:  once they got a hold of a ball carrier, I don't remember ever seeing them let go.  Several tackles came when the defender had inferior position on the carrier and simply held on until he fell (or until the rest of the defense came to help).  The concern comes in the presnap adjustments, where the defense tended to tip their hand. Graysnail, again:

The defense was dropping out of fakes well before the snap. I don’t know if that was intentional, but it had the side effect of bringing guys a little bit out of position, so they didn’t get the benefit of the fake and weren’t in good spots. UTM didn’t have the talent to take advantage of this, but heads up for future. This also applies for looks where they were showing 1-high before the snap, but rotated into 2-high a couple of seconds prior to the actual snap.

Well said.

SPECIAL TEAMS

We didn't miss any field goals, but Daniel Lincoln did have a couple low kicks again.  Also, Chad Cunningham failed to get a single kickoff into the end zone - a returning theme from last year.  With the recruiting mystique surrounding freshman Michael Palardy (and to a lesser extent, Matt Darr), expect to hear Vols fans crying for a switch in one or both positions.  My only comment is this:  things like kicking distance and low kicks on field goals are so obvious, we have to remember that the coaches are fully aware of them.  We can trust the coaches to make a reasonable decision on kickers, so there's little sense in getting worked up over it at the moment.

Setting aside Jones's fumble, the punting return game looked largely unspectacular because the UT-Martin punter had a really nice night.  His ten punt, 41.7-yard average holds up well in any book, and most of those were high enough to warrant fair catches.  The rugby-style punts were largely unnecessary; had they not been tried, his average would likely have been above 45 yards.

SUMMARY

It was everything you would want to see in an opening day tune-up, and nothing you wouldn't.  We'll hope that Gerald Jones recovers quickly and can come back sooner rather than later.  But the Vols successfully cleared their first hurdle - low as it may have been - and didn't give reason to panic.  We can at least be happy with that.

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