It wasn't the most reassuring game for Volunteer fans Saturday night as Tennessee struggled early against the Akron Zips, but there were some positives to take away from it.
First, the Volunteers dominated in the second half. Yes, it's Akron, but the second half has been the Vols' Achilles' heel since Dooley has been on Rocky Top. Tennessee outscored the Zips 24-3 and outgained them 280-142. Maybe the Zips just ran out of steam, but the Volunteers took advantage.
Behind the second half surge was Tyler Bray. It was good to see the junior quarterback be able to take an early punch and recover. After he disappeared in the second half against Florida and gave up a pick-six on the Vols' first drive he could have tightened up and mentally left the game, but he didn't.
Bray finished by completing his final 17-of-20 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns. That's pretty good.
Lastly, Volunteer fans got a glimpse into the next run of Volunteer players.
Tennessee has had to play a lot of freshman the past two seasons and the underclassmen shined last night.
Sophomores Jacob Carter and Brendan Downs scored the first touchdowns of their careers last night.
Downs caught a 6-yard pass from Bray to give the Vols a 20-13 lead midway through the second quarter. Downs has missed a lot of time this season due to a leg injury and is just now back to playing speed.
"It's good to have him back because we need him," head coach Derek Dooley said. "Brendan is going to be a good, solid player for us. He's doing well."
Carter, who received a scholarship from Tennessee following the dismissal of Da'Rick Rogers, scored his first with just under six minutes to give the Vols the 47-26 lead.
Running back Quenshaun Watson also got into the action last night against the Zips. Watson was the first running back off the bench to relieve Rajion Neal, even though he isn't listed as the second or even third option on the depth chart. Watson finished the night with eight carries for six yards. Not a big night, but Watson is starting to get his feet wet.
Four-star recruit LaDarrell McNeil also played against the Zips in the absence of Brian Randolph. McNeil is only playing the Vols' six defensive back sets and recorded just one tackle Saturday night. But in comparison with juniors and seniors struggling to run the right coverage, the freshman, at times, is making good progress.
Tennessee seems to finally have a group of upperclassmen to take the majority of the snaps, but to sustain success in college football, programs need to be able to insert a new guy in when one graduates or leaves for the draft and not miss a beat. These players might not have the biggest impact this season, but they are the next run of Tennessee starters in the coming years.
— Austin Bornheim is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org