There’s been quite a bit of excitement in Knoxville recently, and it was easy to see why with Tennessee’s opening-day performance Sunday. In front of a capacity crowd -- the first sellout in a home opener since 2007 -- the Volunteers dominated a dangerous Utah State team who many thought could pull off the upset, 38-7.
A little old, a little new
After scoring the opening touchdown, Tennessee’s special teams came up with a big play, and it was fitting that senior linebacker A.J. Johnson made the play. Johnson, an All-SEC talent who could’ve left early for the NFL, ran down on kickoff coverage and jarred the ball loose from the Utah State returner. To nobody’s surprise it was Todd Kelly Jr., one of 21 UT true freshmen (and 32 newcomers) to play Sunday night, who was there to recover the fumble.
All we’ve heard about this offseason is how the Volunteers are having to replace every starter on both their offensive and defensive lines. Well, the defensive line is tired of hearing about it. They held Chuckie Keeton and Utah State to 34 yards rushing in the first half, and when the Aggies tried to go for it on 4th-and-1 early in the second quarter, Jordan Williams and Derek Barnett were there to fill the hole and stuff Utah State, forcing a turnover on downs.
Welcome to Rocky Top, Von
Everybody saw the sick one-handed touchdown grab that junior college transfer Von Pearson made in spring practice, so it should come as no surprise that Pearson caught a touchdown in his first game as a Volunteer. No, the catch wasn’t an instant SportsCenter Top-10 nominee, but it was certainly more meaningful. The play capped off a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ate up six minutes of clock and gave Tennessee a 24-0 lead.
More from Johnson
Did you think Johnson was done just yet? The guy didn’t turn down the NFL and come back to Tennessee to not make plays. With the Volunteers already up 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, Johnson got the capacity crowd back into it when he intercepted Keeton and nearly took it back for a touchdown. It’s safe to say he’s not regretting his decision to stay. If anything, his stock will continue to rise with more games like this.