JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – It was just one scrimmage, but Rajion Neal made the Vols forget about their rushing woes from last season.
The junior tailback exploded for 134 yards and a touchdown on just nine rushing attempts to lead a Tennessee offense that averaged 6.4 yards per carry in the team’s first scrimmage on Saturday at Science Hill High School.
Most impressive to head coach Derek Dooley, however, was the team’s attitude throughout the course of the day.
“It was a good scrimmage and I was pleased with the attitude, competitiveness, toughness and effort that the players played with,” Dooley said. “That was a good thing to see… It was one of our better scrimmages from that stand point. We got on the buses and there wasn’t a word being said and that was good. They were locked in and treating it like a game and I think that is a sign of maturity and a sign of how important it is to them.”
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray echoed Dooley’s sentiments about the team’s drastic improvement in less than 24 hours.
“Yesterday was a bad practice, no one really showed up to play,” Bray said. “We were kind of like zombies out there. Today we came out with a burst of energy and we had the tempo we wanted, so we ran all over the defense. The offense has been playing well, we’ve had some rough days, but today we came out and played well and did our thing.”
That doesn’t mean the Vols won’t head back to Milligan without anything to work on though.
“We had guys on both sides of the ball making plays but I was disappointed in all the game administration part of it,” Dooley said. “We have to clean that up. It was the first time with a real SEC crew [refereeing] and there were a lot of knick-knack penalties that we have to clean up, substitution issues, and that is why you scrimmage.”
RUNNING GAME IMPRESSES
Statistically, Tennessee’s most impressive effort on Saturday came from its running backs who combined to run for 295 yards and three touchdowns.
Neal set the tone right out of the gate, rattling off runs of 18 and 11 yards in rapid succession on the first drive of the afternoon. Although that drive stalled near midfield, he picked up right where he left off, starting the second offensive series with a 13-yard carry.
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray then completed three straight passes, culminating in a 29-yard touchdown strike to a streaking Da’Rick Rogers across the middle of the field.
When the offensive starters got the ball back, Neal continued his impressive day by ripping off the longest run of the day, a 68-yarder in which he tiptoed down the left sideline before spinning out of a tackle near the 20-yard line and trotting in for the score.
“(Rajion) is playing more physical,” Bray said. “He ran the pass and he hasn’t been the most physical running back, but he came off today and he was very physical, and broke a few tackles, made a few good moves.”
For his part, Neal was quick to deflect the credit to the big guys up front.
“I feel the offense has a great deal of confidence for running the ball, but there is still room for a great deal of improvement,” Neal said. “It starts up front and they really gave all the backs a good opportunity to be successful.
“It meant a lot and showed that those guys [offensive line] were working. The defense has good schemes but for those guys to have a one yard stop to turn into a four or five yard pop shows that they are getting after it. That is excitement that you want to build off of and you can’t ask for anything more.”
Later in the scrimmage, freshman Quenshaun Watson followed Neal’s example and broke off a 60-yard touchdown run, while sophomore Devrin Young ran for 36 yards, including an 11-yard score.
“I am happy (with the run game) but I am hoping that we can keep building on it,” Dooley said. “It wasn’t a surprise. I have said that we have three guys that can help us win and run the ball and we have to do a good job around it of blocking and throwing the football because we aren’t going to line up two tight ends and pound it. We aren’t those kind of guys.”
THROUGH THE AIR
Although the running backs came through with most of the big plays on Saturday, the Vols were also able to generate crucial yardage with their passing game.
Bray finished 18-for-31 with 189 yards and a TD while his sophomore counterpart Justin Worley was 9-for-15 for 134 yards and two scores, firing touchdown passes to Cody Blanc and Jacob Carter.
“Both quarterbacks, Tyler and Justin, have had great camps,” Dooley said. “Justin really has. Both of them commanded the situations the way that we wanted them to. They were poised and they were calm and understood the time and time outs and that was good to see.”
Justin Hunter topped the Vols with seven receptions for 47 yards, while Rogers hauled in six passes for 105 yards.
“There’s really a bond between us,” Bray said about his relationship with Hunter and Rogers. “There was one time today when I just turned and chucked it [to Justin Hunter], and I really didn’t even see it but it was completed. They know where they need to be, and I know where they will be to throw the ball.”
Junior placekicker Michael Palardy helped pad the scoreboard, going a perfect 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts with successful kicks from 37, 35, 31 and 48 yards, the last of which came as the final buzzer sounded on Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I felt good,” Palardy said. “Field goals were really good. I had a lot of confidence and kicked them well. Punting was alright, but I could’ve been better and there is a lot of room for improvement. Overall, a pretty good day but I’m still working on a few things.”
After struggling with his consistency at times last season, Palardy’s biggest improvement has been with the mental aspect of his game.
“I’m just being focused and taking one kick at a time,” Palardy said. “I think that the scrimmage was a big step in doing that. My consistency is going to be a big part of these next couple weeks and next scrimmages to get the ball rolling for the season.”
BRIGHT SPOTS ON D
Despite all of the offense’s success, there were still a number of bright spots on the defensive side of the ball as sophomore linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt wreaked havoc all over the field. Johnson finished with a team-high 10 tackles, while Maggitt was right behind him with nine.
Senior defensive back Marsalis Teague impressed as well, recording four of the team’s seven pass-breakups, in addition to notching six tackles.
“It’s fun and it’s a challenge [going into my senior season] with two of the best receivers in the country,” Teague said. “It’s a good challenge for us [as the defense] always trying to get better.”
The Vols also had four sacks on the afternoon with Rod Wilks, Channing Fugate, Jordan Williams and Corey Miller each dropping the quarterback for a loss.
“There has been a lot of improvement (pressuring the quarterback),” Darrington Sentirmore said. “We are rushing through our rushing lane, we are pushing the pocket more and affecting the quarterback. I think we did well in this scrimmage affecting Bray. It depends on the call but the defensive line had a lot of good pressure, we worked hard out there.”
Those efforts left Dooley pleased with the new-look Vol defense even if the execution wasn’t always perfect.
“(Scrimmages are) always a barometer of where you are,” Dooley said. “Where we are is that we think we have a lot of good guys that can make some plays, more guys than we have had. But we also have some newness on both sides of the ball about what we are doing. That is creating a lot of breakdowns in execution and a lot of administration problems. So that is what we have to correct.
“I think the defense did a pretty good job of preventing the big plays on the pass game. Even though we threw the ball decently, we didn’t generate yards per attempt that we are trying to get, so there is some good and bad there. Overall, there is a lot to learn and we made a ton of mistakes, but the most important part was about how we competed and that was good to see.”
PASSING: Tyler Bray 18-31-189 TD, 37 Long; Justin Worley 9-15-134 2 TDs, 24 Long; Nathan Peterman 1-4-4 INT, 4 Long;Matt Darr 1-1-2, 2 Long.
RUSHING: Rajion Neal 9-134 TD, 68 Long; Quenshaun Watson 6-60 TD, 61 Long; Devrin Young 7-36 TD, 11 Long; Marlin Lane 8-34, 8 Long; Tom Smith 9-19, 5 Long; Justin King 3-13, 10 Long; Alden Hill 2-6, 5 Long; Deanthonie Summerhill 1-0;Justin Worley 5-0 TD, 14 Long; Cody Blanc 1-(minus 1); Nathan Peterman 3-(minus 13)
RECEIVING: Da’Rick Rogers 6-105 TD, 37 Long; Jacob Carter 4-58 TD, 20 Long; Justin Hunter 7-47, 14 Long; Jason Croom 2-34, 24 Long; Devrin Young 3-26, 16 Long; Cordarrelle Patterson 1-26; Cody Blanc 1-17; Tom Smith 1-5; Tyler Drummer 1-4; Quenshaun Watson 1-3; Brendan Downs 1-2; Ben Bartholomew 1-2
PUNTING: Matt Darr 5-216, 43.3 average, 47 Long; Michael Palardy 5-174, 34.8, 38 Long
FIELD GOALS: Michael Palardy 4-4 (37, 35, 31, 48); George Bullock 1-3 (33 WL, 41 WR, 35)
SACKS: Channing Fugate 1-12; Corey Miller 1-10; Rod Wilks 1-5; Jordan Williams 1-3
INTERCEPTIONS: Naz Oliver 1-32
DEFENSE (UT-AT-TT): A.J. Johnson 2-8-10; Curt Maggitt 4-5-9; Brian Randolph 2-5-7; Channing Fugate 4-2-6; Byron Moore3-3-6; Jacques Smith 2-4-6; Marsalis Teague 0-6-6; John Propst 2-3-5; Willie Bohannon 2-2-4; Naz Oliver 2-2-4; Deion Bonner 3-0-3; Justin Coleman 3-0-3; Daniel Gray 2-1-3; Rod Wilks 2-1-3; Vincent Dallas 2-0-2; Jordan Williams 2-0-2;Corey Alexander 1-1-2; Gregory Grieco 1-1-2; Daniel Hood 0-2-2; LaTroy Lewis 0-2-2; Darrington Sentimore 0-2-2, Daniel McCullers 0-2-2; Eric Gordon 1-0-1; Corey Miller 1-0-1; Dontavis Sapp 1-0-1; Maurice Couch 0-1-1; Raiques Crump 0-1-1;Danny O’Brien 0-1-1, Tino Thomas 0-1-1; Jaron Toney 0-1-1
TACKLES FOR LOSS: Channing Fugate 1-12; Corey Miller 1-10; Byron Moore 1-5; Rod Wilks 1-5; Willie Bohannon 1-4; A.J. Johnson 1-3; Jordan Williams 1-3; Deion Bonner 1-1; Jaron Toney 1-1; Naz Oliver 1-0
SACKS: Channing Fugate 1-12; Corey Miller 1-10; Rod Wilks 1-5; Jordan Williams 1-3
PASS BREAK-UPS: Marsalis Teague 4; Vincent Dallas 1; Naz Oliver 1; Dontavis Sapp 1
QB HURRIES: Jacques Smith 2; Darrington Sentimore 2; Willie Bohannon 1; Corey Miller 1