KNOXVILLE — Not to read too much in to beating the Peay out of Austin, but the third time appears to have been the charm in replacing Phillip Fulmer.
The Butch Jones era opened crisply with Tennessee’s fundamentally sound thrashing of Austin Peay on Saturday night. More than 97,000 showed up on a sticky-hot evening to watch Tennessee waltz past a 51-point underdog, and Jones’ Volunteers barely broke a sweat in the 45-0 victory.
Especially impressive for the first game of a transition year, Tennessee didn’t commit a penalty or a turnover while dashing to a 42-0 halftime lead. They played a penalty-free second half, too.
“The good thing was I wanted a clean game, you know,” Jones said. “I didn’t want to have 10 men on the field, have to call unnecessary timeouts. I thought our special teams did a great job in terms of getting the right people on the field.”
Tennessee became the eighth school to win 800 games, and the clean performance would’ve pleased former coach Robert Neyland, the maxim-making molder of men most responsible for the program’s tradition.
“There’s not very many programs in the country that can say that,” Jones said, “and it’s a tribute to all the great players that have come here before us and laid this tradition, this passion for us.”
Body language says the Vols are happier playing for Jones than they were dealing with his predecessor, Derek Dooley, who came to mind when Jones talked about having the right number of players in the game on special teams.
Generally speaking, players didn’t seem happier when Lane Kiffin replaced Fulmer, or even when Dooley replaced Kiffin.
Kiffin came in talking about Southern Cal players such as Reggie Bush while getting off on the wrong foot with the likes of starting center Josh McNeil.
But at least Kiffin looked like a coach while vastly improving the credentials of players such as Jonathan Crompton, Montario Hardesty and Dan Williams.
Dooley’s micromanaging first impression for many involved instructing players on how to properly shower.
Even some UT staffers were already wary of Kiffin and Dooley at this point in their short tenures, and that isn’t the case with Jones.
It’s easy to see why Jones is on track to sign one of the nation’s elite recruiting classes, and his recruiting eye was exemplified on a local level when he landed Dobyns-Bennett’s Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford.
Neither would’ve been Vols if Dooley had remained, and Foreman had committed to Vanderbilt.
But thanks to Jones, Graham Clark’s former Indians stars are on the field for UT. Foreman was the target on a couple of the Governors’ big gains, but the swift cornerback that has generated a buzz while dashing up the depth chart quickly atoned with an interception in the red zone early in the fourth quarter.
He was UT’s first true freshman to make an interception in an opener since Dwayne Goodrich did it against UNLV in 1996.
The crowd reaction was also audible after Foreman’s first three strides when he picked up what was initially thought to be a fumble and returned it some 25 yards late in the third quarter. Instant replay reversed the fumble, but didn’t erase the impression Foreman’s speed had made on fans.
Foreman and Swafford (two tackles) were two of 10 true freshmen to play against Austin Peay. Eight red-shirt freshmen also played. And again, no penalties.
Foreman and Swafford were part of Northeast Tennessee’s respectable representation Saturday.
Starting UT tight end Brendan Downs, a Tennessee High product, caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Justin Worley with 53 seconds left in the first half. Kingsport native Daniel Hood, an interior defensive lineman, batted a pass before intercepting it and returning it five yards to give the Vols possession at the Austin Peay 25 with 11:41 left in the first quarter.
“If Corey (Miller) would’ve got a little block on the quarterback,” Hood said, “I probably would’ve had a touchdown. … It’s the first interception I’ve made since middle school.”
Tennessee High’s Mack Crowder is No. 2 on the UT depth chart at center.
The performance of area players might be part of the reason Elizabethton junior Ethan Thomas is already generating discussion within the program.
Science Hill’s Ben Campbell had a busy and impressive showing. The Austin Peay junior booted seven punts for a 43.1-yard average. He had to shuffle to his right for a high snap on his 49-yarder, and would’ve had another 49-yarder if not for a false start.
Fellow former Hilltopper Tyler Miles was set to start for the Governors at left guard. But the 6-foot-4, 300-pound red-shirt freshman is week-to-week with a knee injury.
Obviously, Austin Peay didn’t offer much preparation for the Hilltoppers that lie ahead for Tennessee. Classy Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky will be a giant step up when it visits Knoxville next week. The Hilltoppers were leading Kentucky 35-20 midway through the fourth period Saturday, and had piled up over 450 yards in offense in doing so.
“We have an extremely, extremely, extremely talented football team coming in here next Saturday,” Jones said.
It’ll probably be a short honeymoon for Jones with many UT fans. He inherited more youth than speed, and visits to Oregon and Florida follow WKU.
But this has the feel of a solid marriage, which hasn’t been the case since the Fulmer divorce.