Game recap: Tennessee 42, Montana 16
Tennessee Stat Book
There was a reason why Tennessee focused on substitution logistics at a mock game during the preseason, and it had nothing to do with last year's 13-man meltdown at LSU.
The Vols, buoyed by a larger number of reliable bodies on defense, rapidly shuffled players in and out throughout Saturday's 42-16 victory over Montana.
Going to its nickel package as much, if not more than its base defense against Montana's fast-paced, spread passing attack, UT relied on every member of its two-deep depth chart and beyond to keep the Grizzlies from mustering many threats throughout the season opener.
"There were a lot of mistakes but we settled in pretty good," coach Derek Dooley said. "There were times when it got a little edgy on that no huddle where we were a little bit late lining up. I thought we managed it a lot better than we did last year.
"We'll probably look at the film and see a lot more mistakes."
Only a handful of mistakes were clearly noticeable during the heat of the game.
Freshman cornerback Justin Coleman looked absolutely lost on a deep pass from Jordan Johnson to Jabin Sambrano that resulted in an 80-yard touchdown late in the second quarter. It was a play Dooley called "terrible," but he acknowledged that it was an understandable freshman mistake.
At one point, middle linebacker Austin Johnson literally shoved Daryl Vereen to the outside to guard an unmanned receiver during a quick-fire, massive subsitution.
Safety Prentiss Waggner laughed as he recalled a play during the first half when the Vols were still moving players around while Montana snapped the ball.
"Their tempo got kind of hectic," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "They gave us problems in the beginning but we worked it out."
Coming into Saturday's game, Dooley said he expected to go "50-50" between UT's nickel and base defenses. It wound up being a bit more lopsided in favor of the nickel, especially when the game was in balance, but that was just fine for a senior like Vereen.
Playing almost exclusively in the nickel package after losing his starting job in the base defense to freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, Vereen led the Vols with six tackles as he utilized his speed to prey on Montana's short pass plays.
"Another senior, so not surprising," Dooley said. "These seniors for some reason don't make mistakes and have a lot of production. That's what veteran guys need to do."
While a senior was the one who thrived the most in UT's nickel package, it was freshman safety Brian Randolph who had Dooley optimistic about the games to come, starting with next week's against Cincinnati, another team that spreads the field and plays at a frantic pace.
Randolph's steady performance that also included a near-interception gave Dooley confidence that he can drop Waggner down from safety to Eric Gordon's nickel back position and not miss a beat.
"We need to keep playing him and we're going to play him a lot," Dooley said. "When we lost Janzen (Jackson), it hamstrung us a little bit back there and we couldn't use Prentiss sometimes the way we wanted to. Hopefully, if Brian progresses it will give us some flexibility there."
The only area UT wasn't able to test out much was its red zone defense — at least with its regulars. The Grizzlies' offense put up its only points through three quarters on Sambrano's long touchdown catch and crossed inside UT's 20-yard line for just one play late in the third quarter. Solid coverage on a look to Sambrano in the end zone gave the ball right back to the Vols.
With backups at nearly every position, the Vols surrendered a late touchdown at the end of a nine-play, 82-yard drive. It was enough for Dooley to reiterate that the Vols, while deeper than last year, still aren't fully loaded on defense.
"We're still thin now," Dooley said. "We got a thin squad and we got to be able to hold up. Our backups didn't look too swinging tonight."