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Five observations from Tennessee’s win over Ball State

Some thoughts.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee had an easy night on Thursday, putting this one away before halftime. Josh Heupel got a good look at his roster, pretty much from the top to the bottom as the Volunteers ran away with a 59-10 win.

Here are five things I’m thinking about after watching.

Secondary generates some turnovers

You couldn’t cook up a better start to the season for Tennessee. Tamarion McDonald capitalized on an ugly trick play from Ball State, picking off quarterback John Paddock on the first snap of the game. McDonald won the starting STAR role over veteran transfer Wesley Walker, and he instantly showed you why.

Kamal Hadden also came up with an interception, taking advantage on a slight underthrow to the sideline from Paddock. Tim Banks and Josh Heupel want to create turnovers, and two key members of the Tennessee secondary made a couple of big plays to kick things off on Thursday night.

At least from a depth perspective, Tennessee’s secondary numbers look pretty good. At cornerback — Warren Burrell, Christian Charles, Kamal Hadden, Wesley Walker, Dee Williams (who didn’t play last night) — give you some real options to mix up if things need a change.

Another small secondary note: I didn’t think Burrell had a good night at all, which is notable after the Purdue debacle. He struggled in man coverage early, giving up a few easy completions. I’m keeping an eye on that situation with so many options behind him.

Joe Milton’s progress

This one turned into a preseason game of sorts and Tennessee quickly emptied its bench early in the second half. That meant another look at Joe Milton, who by all accounts has been the best possible teammate through a couple of tough situations. Milton stuck around with no chance of earning back the starting job, perhaps looking ahead to the 2023 season. You just don’t see that a lot in college football anymore.

Milton got his shot on Thursday and delivered a pretty solid performance. He finished 8-9 for 113 yards and a touchdown, capping his night with a long post route score to Jimmy Holiday.

“You guys know that we felt like he’s grown from the time that he got back in January,” Heupel said after the game. “Much like Hendon has. We felt like they’ve progressed. Each of them in their own way. But I feel like Joe, tonight, showed some of the things that we have seen during the course of training camp, which was extremely positive to see. There will be things he needs to improve upon coming out of this one, too.”

Joe still didn’t throw a ball under 90 mph on radar gun, but he certainly looked a little more comfortable and in control. Playing Ball State’s second team certainly helped, but I’ll take the step forward.

Receiver depth

We already talked about Bru McCoy, but I came away impressed with just about everyone else below him on the depth chart. We know Tennessee is going to run through Tillman-Hyatt and now perhaps McCoy, but they’ve got legitimate options beyond them.

Walker Merrill has taken a step forward according to the staff, and found the endzone on Thursday night. Ramel Keyton made some tough catches over the middle and made the most of his reps. Clearly Jimmy Holiday made a big splash with the long touchdown, but he was worked in on some shorter attempts earlier in the game. Squirrel White also got some run, catching three passes.

One interesting note — I don’t remember seeing Jimmy Calloway last night.

Heupel says he wants to play more guys at receiver, and that certainly seems possible after what we saw last night. Maybe more importantly, Tennessee has some depth established if something were to happen to those top three or four guys.

“Guys have proven that they have the right to have more opportunities than a year ago,” Heupel said. “Year 1, last year Week 1, we were still finding out a lot about our football team. We are this year too, but there’s a lot more knowns. A year into it, there are more guys that understand offensively what we’re doing. The ‘why’ behind it.”

Lack of pressure

Now for some bad, I really wasn’t impressed with any of the Tennessee pass rushers. Tim Banks played things fairly vanilla and didn’t exactly try to generate pressure by blitzing. It seemed like he wanted his guys to go out there and simply beat the man in front of them. At least while rushing the passer, they didn’t really do that.

Paddock was getting the ball out fairly quickly, likely by design. The sky isn’t falling by any means, but you’d like to see a little more out of Byron Young or Tyler Baron after so much buzz. We’ll draw some conclusions here after next Saturday.

Offensive line push

For as many points as Tennessee scored, it really wasn’t the smoothest operation up front. I thought the offensive line struggled at times, particularly early on as Jabari Small was trying to get going. A handful of times Small simply crashed into the back of a lineman with nowhere to go. Clearly they settled in and eventually opened up plenty of lanes for Small and Wright to run through, but it was a little bumpy in the first quarter.

This is particularly important as Tennessee heads north to Pitt next week, where the Panthers have a very good defensive front. I’ll say this though, West Virginia sure was able to open up some running lanes on Thursday against them, running for 190 yards. But more on that later.