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Tennessee Vols Trending Report: Week One (Utah State)

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The defense and the passing game are improving, the offensive line and special teams have taken steps back. It's the week one trending report.

Newcomer Von Pearson was one of many Vols to step up in the passing game
Newcomer Von Pearson was one of many Vols to step up in the passing game
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Week one is in the books, and as you know, the Tennessee Volunteers opened with a big win, 38-7 over the Utah State Aggies, despite being favored by less than a touchdown. So what looked good, and what looked bad? It's time for our weekly trending report, where we compare this week's performance with UT's recent levels. This being week one, there's a lot of volatility. Fortunately for Vols fans, most of it is in the trending up direction.

TRENDING UP:

  • The passing game. Justin Worley set career highs in completions (27), attempts (38), and yards (273). He averaged 7.2 yards per attempt--almost a full yard better than his average from last season--and threw three touchdowns and no interceptions, both of which tie career bests. While his accuracy on deep balls still left something to be desired, the timing and accuracy on short passes was a massive step up from the 2013 season. Justin Worley could easily get his own "trending up" category, even before we mention that he actually ran a couple times with some success, but that would be ignoring the strides made by the receivers. Ten different receivers made catches, and the drops that plagued the Vols receivers last season were fewer in week one of 2014. UT needs to develop a deep threat to stretch the field vertically, but the opening game was a very positive step in their ability to stretch the field horizontally and get the ball to playmakers in space. The quarterback, receivers, and play-calling all seem to be taking steps forward.
  • The defense. Like, all of it. Tennessee defenses have been plagued by running quarterbacks and third down conversions for what seems like forever. Sunday, the Vols allowed Utah State to convert just 3 of 14 third downs, and the talented Chuckie Keeton managed just 8 yards on the ground (including sacks) and no carries for more than 11 yards. The containment was improved, the secondary was improved, and the open field tackling was perhaps the most notable improvement. The whole defense took a giant step forward in week one, holding the Aggies to just 244 yards of offense. And holding an excellent quarterback to 4.1 yards per attempt. And nabbing two interceptions. It's hard to single out individuals in such a great team performance, but Cameron Sutton and A.J. Johnson--two best Tennessee defenders last season--seem to have improved significantly, Jalen Reeves-Maybin led the team with ten tackles in his first game as a starter, and true freshman Derek Barnett earned a start at defensive end and helped make a stop in the backfield on a key 4th down in the second quarter. The Vols will face better offenses this season, but their first performance was a positive.
  • The fans. This was the first sold out opener since 2007, and despite the rain, not many of those tickets went unused. Neyland was packed, and when the third quarter ended with the Vols leading 24-0 against a small conference opponent, Neyland was still packed. Some of that, perhaps, is a sign of respect for a very solid Utah State squad, but it's hard not to notice the excitement around a program that has been anything but in the last few years.
TRENDING DOWN:
  • The offensive line. Raise your hand if you saw this coming. Tennessee lost all five starters on the offensive line and then faced a front seven with major conference quality. Going into the game, the Tennessee offensive line against the Utah State front seven was perhaps the only place on the field where the Aggies had a clear edge, and coming out of the game, the Tennessee offensive line against the Utah State front seven was perhaps the only place where the Aggies had a clear edge. The Vols managed just 2.8 yards per carry, gave up two sacks, and suffered numerous false start penalties. The interior of the line is talented and should improve as the season progresses, but Tennessee cannot afford talented JUCO Dontavius Blair failing to make a difference at tackle. Blair didn't play a snap in week one.
  • Special teams. Again, part of this downward trend has to do with last year's quality. Michael Palardy did an excellent job on field goals and punts, but he's gone now. Replacing him are Aaron Medley, who badly missed a 41-yard field goal before hitting from 36, and Matt Darr, who continues to be maddeningly inconsistent at punter. The kickoff coverage unit started the game well and forced a huge fumble that allowed the Vols to take an early 14-0 lead, but Utah State started finding more holes as the game progressed. And the Vols' own return game failed to reach the 20-yard line on either attempt. There is no reason for that.
HOLDING STEADY:
  • Justin Coleman. I'm sorry. The kid has been fighting hard since arriving on campus as a true freshman, and this is the fourth straight year in which he expects to play a significant number of snaps. Yet his reputation has been as someone who gives up the big play, and it happened again Sunday. Coleman lost his man on a 37-yard touchdown pass that gave Utah State their only points. When most of the defense was taking a step forward, it was sad to see a "more of the same" moment from one of the veterans.