Tennessee got the Josh Heupel era off and running with a 38-6 victory over the Bowling Green Falcons on Thursday night at Neyland Stadium. There were some good moments — along with plenty of concerning moments. It’s far too early to make final judgements, but here’s a current stock report coming out of the opener.
RB Tiyon Evans: The JUCO product absolutely showed out during his Tennessee debut, averaging north of seven yards per carry as the Volunteers dominated up front. He was explosive, he showed some wiggle and he proved just how big of a factor he’s going to be in this offense.
WR Cedric Tillman: Statistically speaking, it wasn’t a big night for Tillman, but the opportunities were there. Tillman came free deep a couple of times and Joe Milton missed him by just a couple of yards. It could have very easily been a multi-score night for Tillman, who is looking to become the next receiver in line following Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer. The 6-3, 215 pounder has an ideal frame to be a difference maker on the perimeter, and it’s clear that this staff has big plans for him.
DB Theo Jackson: What a night it was for Theo Jackson. The guy was everywhere, frankly, battling down passes and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Tennessee’s STAR defensive back was credited with 11 tackles and three passes defensed — the latter of which is already a career season high.
There were some shaky moments in the second quarter for the secondary, but Jackson was a clear bright spot.
Defensive Line: It’s really tough to separate what was good against what was simply just a matter of talent discrepancy, but it’s tough not to praise what we saw out of the defensive line. It’s Bowling Green, I get it, but it was a dominating performance. This unit was wrecking run plays all night long, as the Falcons struggled to even get the ball handed off at times. Tyler Baron had some good moments as a pass rusher, and this group will get a boost when Byron Young returns.
We’ll know a lot more about this particular unit next week against Pitt.
QB Joe Milton: After a day to marinate and think on it, the feeling remains the same. Milton didn’t have a great night, despite scoring three times. The Michigan transfer started 9-11 and led two immediate scoring drives, but finished the game going 2-12.
His physical traits are crystal clear. 6-5, 244 pounds, cannon arm, mobility — got it. But the reads have to speed up for Milton. Bowling Green started dropping seven, even eight into coverage and Milton seemed to struggle if his first read was covered. His deep pass attempts seemed flat, and two would-be touchdowns sailed long.
We’re certainly going to give him some time in the system to get more comfortable, but there’s a lot of work to be done here.
WR Velus Jones Jr.: Probably the most surprising stat of the night — Jones didn’t catch a single pass against Bowling Green. The senior receiver came on at the end of 2020 and returned for his extra season, thanks to NCAA’s COVID rule. With Heupel coming to town, Tennessee was expected to lean on Jones as a veteran leader. However, that wasn’t the case in the opener. Honestly, Tennessee could have really used him too. It seemed like maybe a quick screen or a slant his way would have gone a long way for Milton’s rhythm. We’ll see if this is a trend next week.
QB Harrison Bailey: Hendon Hooker entered the game on the final drive, perhaps signaling who had won the backup job. Bailey was a part of a three-man battle for the starting gig during camp, which was ultimately won by Milton.
Following spring practices, Bailey was the presumed leader after a strong game. However, Milton’s arrival threw a curveball at the sophomore, and now he must fight his way back. And let’s be real, it’s very possible that he finds an opportunity to play this year. Hopefully we see all quarterbacks get some run against Tennessee Tech.
WR Jalin Hyatt: I couldn’t put Hyatt in the up or down category, so he lands in the hold category — better days are certainly ahead here. Diamond hands, as the kids say.
I think he might be the most talented receiver on the team, but his two drops on Thursday were massive. Both would have been big plays, and one would have almost certainly set up another touchdown.
Hyatt still led the team with four catches for 62 yards, clearly a huge part of the gameplan. All of those came in the first quarter, when the Tennessee offense was hot. Hyatt and Tillman were pretty clearly the top two targets for Milton on Thursday, and Hyatt should eventually pay dividends with his elite downfield speed, paired with Milton’s arm.