At the top of the curve.
Receivers. Lucas Taylor was the player of the game, grabbing seven catches for 104 yards and serving up three of the game’s biggest plays: a one-handed 23-yard catch, a 17-yard touchdown during which he broke two tackles to get into the end zone, and another nice touchdown catch, juke, and run to the checkerboards. Josh Briscoe had a decent game, getting 65 yards on six receptions. Chris Brown, Austin Rogers, Denarius Moore, Jeff Cottam, and Kenny O’Neal also added to the 335 total passing yards. Rogers did drop a pass or two, and Briscoe did put the ball on the turf, but these mistakes caused no harm.
Quarterback. Erik Ainge had a record day, going 27 of 39 for 334 yards and four touchdowns. He distributed the ball to 11 different receivers. He did throw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, which is too bad, as it really sours what otherwise was another very solid game.
Coaches. This was the perfect game for a letdown, and a lot of fans were calling it for Arkansas State. The team could have gone into a tailspin after the dishumiliarassment suffered at Florida the week before. Instead, the coaches and players kept their heads and got it done against a decent team. Not only did they get the win, but they made some difficult substitutions that had to be made, featuring LaMarcus Coker on offense, not neglecting the running game, and getting a lot of new faces into the action.
In the big, fat middle of the curve.
Running backs. Coker had 101 yards on 15 carries for one touchdown and a 6.7 yard average. He also added 49 receiving yards (and a touchdown) and 67 yards on kickoff returns. Arian Foster had 57 yards on 12 carries, and Lennon Creer had 29 yards on nine carries. Foster and Creer each had a fumble. Both were recovered by the Vols, but . . . yikes.
Offensive line. Still no sacks given up by the o-line this year, so pass protection is great. Run-blocking was improved, as the Vols gained 188 on the ground, but still has a ways to go. Absence of penalties is laudable.
Special teams. Mixed bag. Daniel Lincoln hit two field goals (another was erased after a roughing the kicker penalty) and all six extra points. Britton Colquitt averaged 46.8 yards on four punts and put three of them inside the opponent’s 20. Punt returns were horrible, with Jonathan Hefney losing 17 yards on four attempts. Everybody’s screaming about the kick coverage unit, which gave up a school-record 209 kickoff return yards. Yes, one of these was 37 yards, but I’d bet that the record had more to do with the new kickoff rule and the fact that Tennessee had to kickoff eight times following scores.
Defensive backs. Eric Berry getting beat deep early set up Arkansas State’s first touchdown, and the unit is still missing too many tackles, but there was significant improvement in this outing. Marsalous Johnson and Brent Vinson each had one interception, and the unit got its hands on balls often, which is both good because it shows they’re getting in the right places and bad in that they didn't capitalize on opportunities as often as they should have.
At the bottom of the curve.
Defensive line. Again, some improvement here in that they were finally able to get some pressure on the quarterback. Robert Ayers had six total tackles (five solo), two sacks, and another tackle for a loss. J.T. Mapu forced and recovered a fumble. Ben Martin, Wes Brown, Chase Nelson, and Walter Fisher all saw action as well, which is good to see. All of this, though, is negated by the fact that they’re giving up too many holes for running backs to shoot through for long gains.
Linebackers. The end must be near. Since when did you think the linebacking corps would be the worst-performing unit on a Tennessee defense? They struggled to get off blocks and were largely unable to make big plays. Sure, part of this may be that the d-line is getting pushed around and allowing running backs to launch through the first line of defense, but the linebackers should be helping to identify and clog those holes.
Overall, this was a slightly encouraging outing for the Vols. Forty-eight points, 523 total yards, and 30 first downs on offense is good against almost anyone, and Arkansas State is no pushover. The running game is much-improved with Coker back to form, and the defense showed some improvement by getting pressure on the QB and forcing turnovers. Still, the defense’s inability to stop the run is cause for great concern, and the secondary, although beginning to gel, is still inexperienced and can only gain it through adversity.