April 21, 2012

One small step for spring; a giant one for fall?

The rain held off, Tyler Bray looked like, well, the good, more grizzled Tyler Bray befitting the old-man beard he often dons and all was well for Tennessee until Derek Dooley discovered in his post-game press conference that he had lost to North Carolina State, 17-14.

That game, of course, is approximately 130 days away and Tennessee's defensive-led Orange team topped its offensive-themed White squad counterparts, 17-14, Saturday afternoon before an impressive crowd of 35,421 --- fourth-largest in Orange & White game history.

"You guys are killing me," Dooley exclaimed after being alerted to the N.C. State logo on the video stat board inside the media center. " In 1969, we put a man on the moon. But the company can't fix the logo?"

The upside of this spring finale is that there are several facets of the game that appeared well on their way to being repaired and plenty more on which to work. For an afternoon, Tennessee was punishing at times with its ground attack. The Vols' top trio of tailbacks, Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane Jr. and Devrin Young combined for 194 rushing yards on 27 carries.

For perspective, that's more yards rushing than Tennessee had as a team in 11 of its 12 games during the tumultuous 2011 season.

"They've gotten a lot better. It's going to help us," Bray said of a running game that has been emphasized like gas-price politics in this election year. "If you pound a team for a while and keep running and running, then all of a sudden play-action, it's just like we did there on the goal-line with the play-action rollout and throw to (Mychal Rivera). You just pound the ball and they start to creep in the box and then you play-action, roll out and wide open. That's where the running game helps."

A cynic would point to the fact that those yards came against most of Tennessee's first- and second-team defensive players. But that group is adjusting to a new scheme, new terminology and in many instances players are lining up in new spots.

There was enough superlatives on defense to find encouragement, anyway. Brian Randolph, the salty veteran with nearly an entire year of college under his belt, created at least one turnover in all three spring scrimmages, including a fumble recovery in this game.

Geraldo Orta, that redshirt freshman that Clemson didn't want and who now seems a cinch to factor in the Vols' special teams and secondary rotations, was active all day and delivered a crushing hit on teammate Carson Anderson. Jordan Williams was consistently around the ball, and Justin Coleman had a game-high nine tackles, which obviously is good and bad for a starting cornerback. Darrington Sentimore, an undeniable key to the Vols' 2012 fortunes, showed up with three tackles from his interior line position.
Further, the Vols didn't stumble through penalties, having only two total in the game, and they never looked lost despite Dooley being the only coach on the field.

"It went good. We got some calls in late, just because of the hurry-up (offense), but we're just going to continue to work on it and just build on what we did this spring," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "It takes work. This is a new defense for everybody, so it's going to take time. We're ready to get to work."

It is the work, painfully slow and unnervingly frustrating, that Dooley has logged in his previous 27 months atop Rocky Top that now has the Vols' third-year coach believing his program is ascending.

"Well, I think that's a fair assessment [of a more-established program], but really from a roster standpoint it's established," Dooley said. "Last season we had a little bit of the program established, but we had a change at the strength and conditioning level, so the offseason was just a little different. We had so many new faces, lost the seniors. I've made this statement, it's the most settled we've been since I've been here, and that's showed."

It showed on Saturday in a relatively smooth spring primer that allowed Tennessee's coach to leave with an easy smile; able to crack jokes about a North Carolina State upset that couldn't possibly happen for another four-plus months.

A scenario that, frankly, doesn't seem very plausible as the Vols begin their long summer march toward the 2012 season. Tennessee enters with reason for optimism, misplaced Wolfpack logos be damned.

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