Vols Close Spring With Back-and-Forth Battle
By Matt Smith
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Tennessee displayed an improved running game in its spring finale on Saturday.
With a steak dinner on the line for the winners of Tennessee’s Orange and White Game, the Orange team defeated the White squad 17-14 on Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, putting a cap on the Volunteers' spring practice. A crowd of 35,421 watched inside Neyland Stadium, the fourth-largest in Orange and White Game history.
Head coach Derek Dooley aligned the teams so that the first-team offense would face the first-team defense, and likewise for the reserves. Running back Marlin Lane of the Orange team was the game’s biggest star. The sophomore from Daytona Beach, Fla. finished with 106 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m real pleased with the spring,” said Dooley. “Now we turn the page and get ready for real ball.”
Lane is one of three running backs vying for the starting role after two-year starter Tauren Poole’s departure. Lane was the only one of the three on the Orange team, with classmate Devrin Young and junior Rajion Neal on the opposite side. Neal finished with 49 yards and a touchdown for the White team, while Young added 42 yards.
“We feel like we made the progress we needed to make,” Dooley said about the running game, which finished 116th of 120 FBS teams in 2011. “Hopefully the players are seeing what it takes to run the football.”
Lane’s scamper right before halftime put the Orange team ahead 14-7. The play was designed to move the team into field goal range, but a hole opened and Lane took advantage of it
“Coach [running backs coach Jay] Graham told me five yards and a field goal,” Lane recalled. “I just kept running.”
The only second-half touchdown came from the White team on a one-yard pass from Tyler Bray to tight end Mychal Rivera. Derrick Brodus’ 37-yard field goal with just over nine minutes to play provided the winning margin. Both Brodus and incumbent placekicker Michael Palardy missed field goals from inside of 35 yards on Saturday.
“Palardy didn’t kick as well today as he did for 14 days,” Dooley commented. “He’s got all summer to correct it. There’s competition there. You’ve got to perform, especially at kicker. It’s hard to have a lot of patience.”
Bray had struggled in similar scrimmage situations over the past year, highlighted by a 5-for-30 performance in last year’s Orange and White game, and had completed less than 50% of his passes in two scrimmages this spring. He finished a modest 14-for-26 on Saturday with one touchdown and no interceptions, but appeared more content to take what was given to him.
“I did better than last year, so I can’t complain,” said the junior quarterback from Kingsburg, Calif. “My knowledge of the game is better.”
Playing without star receiver Justin Hunter, who sat out the game while still recovering from an ACL tear from last September, Bray’s favorite target was embattled junior Da’Rick Rogers. Dooley had to squelch rumors of a possible transfer by Rogers earlier this month. Rogers caught five passes for 74 yards, including a 51-yard reception on the White team’s first drive. Despite a key fumble in the red zone, his head coach was satisfied with his performance on Saturday.
“He [Rogers] had a good game,” said Dooley. “He’s really had a great spring. His attitude’s been great. His biggest improvement has been blocking in the run game. Da’Rick’s got a lot of leadership qualities.”
The White team offense was composed mostly of reserves, but sophomores Jacob Carter and Brendan Downs stood out as top performers. Carter caught five passes to lead the White, while Downs, who is projected to be the team’s third tight end in the fall, had three catches for 37 yards.
“Nobody talks about Brendan Downs,” praised Dooley. “Brendan’s had a great spring. We’ve got three guys [at tight end]. We’re going to play a lot of them.”
The defense was very basic in its formations under new coordinator Sal Sunseri, electing to disguise many of its looks that it will display come the regular season. Senior linebacker Herman Lathers wasn’t entirely pleased with the vanilla game plan.
“We only had five calls in on defense,” said Lathers. “I was getting a little frustrated because we weren’t running a lot.”
Lathers missed the 2011 season with a broken ankle. As a fifth-year senior and the veteran of a young linebacking corps, he’s expected to be the leader of the unit both on and off the field.
“My main message is to take everything like it’s your last,” Lathers explained. “My job is to push everybody and make sure nobody gets down.”
Notable absentees from the game in addition to Hunter were sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt and defensive lineman Daniel Hood. Maggitt is slated to move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme, but a shoulder injury has kept him out for most of the spring.
Dooley was extremely pleased with the chemistry of the coaching staff that saw seven new coaches arrive since December. There won’t be a grace period, however. With an 11-14 record over two years, Dooley needs results and he needs them quickly.
“The staff has been as seamless a transition as I’ve ever been a part of. It started with hiring Sal [Sunseri] who I had worked with and had been in this kind of system. We talk the same language. It’s a lot easier extension into the other staff. It’s been a real good dynamic.”
Tennessee will open the 2012 season at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Aug. 31 when they face N.C. State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The Volunteers have not won a season opener away from Neyland Stadium since their national title season in 1998.
The university’s media relations department apparently has already been preparing for that opener. The scoreboard screen in the Stokely Family Media Center read following Saturday’s game “N.C. State 17, Tennessee 14.”
Dooley provided one of his trademark quips about the screen, saying “What is that? In 1969 we put a man on the moon, but we can’t get this right.”
It’s spring practice for everyone at Tennessee. However, unlike the scoreboard screen, the football team’s mistakes won’t be corrected with just the click of a button.