Tennessee was going to need some young players to step up if their 2017 season was going to have any type of success at all. And luckily for the Vols, several of those young, unproven players had breakout performances in Tennessee’s season-opening 42-41 double-overtime victory.
Aside from the offensive line, Tennessee’s offense had little experience or known play-making ability when they took the field against Georgia Tech to start the Vols’ 2017 season. One of the few play-makers the Vols knew they could count on was Jauan Jennings, and he was relied upon early. Jennings was targeted six times and caught three of those targets in the first half.
But Jennings would leave the game with an apparent wrist injury late in the second quarter, and that left a void for Tennessee’s already struggling offense.
Tennessee’s offense looked in trouble. But then two players stepped up and helped carry the load for the Vols in the second half and overtime.
Sophomore receiver Marquez Callaway burst onto the scene with his four reception, 115 yard, two touchdown performance against the Yellow Jackets. Callaway’s first catch of the game came on a well-executed fade route into the end zone for a 10-yard score.
His second touchdown was even more impressive. Callaway took a short completion and turned it into a 50-yard touchdown by eluding two Tech defenders and sprinting to the end zone. He would later haul in a leaping 40-yard grab in the fourth quarter as well.
Callaway had all of one catch for 10 yards as a freshman last year. But he became Tennessee’s biggest play-maker through the air when Jennings was forced out.
But Callaway wasn’t the only player who filled the play-making void on offense.
Tennessee fans already knew that running back John Kelly could be a difference maker in a game. Most of the national media, however, did not. And he proved that he had what it takes to shoulder the load in the backfield to everyone who stayed up to watch the second half and both overtimes.
Kelly took over the game in the second half and overtime. He had just seven carries for 35 yards and a score in the first half but exploded for 12 carries for 93 yards and three touchdowns in the second half and overtime. Kelly scored the Vols’ last three touchdowns of the game, including the game-tying score in the fourth quarter and the game-winning touchdown in the second overtime.
All in all, Kelly finished with 19 carries for 128 yards and four scores. He also added five catches for 35 yards to his total.
Tennessee’s new play-makers didn’t just emerge on offense, though. The Vols had two younger players make a name for themselves on defense as well.
Sophomore Daniel Bituli wasn’t even supposed to start the game for the Vols. Austin Smith was slated as the starter at the third linebacker spot as late as this past weekend, but an injury forced Smith to miss the game. Bituli got the starting nod, and he flourished in it.
Bituli totaled a whopping 23 tackles in his first career start, and he forced a crucial fumble during the game as well. Bituli was everywhere on defense for Tennessee, and he totaled the most tackles the Vols have had by a single player in a game since 1988.
And Bituli wasn’t the only sophomore who impressed on defense.
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Darrell Taylor turned in a strong performance on a night where the defense struggled to stop Georgia Tech’s flexbone/option offense. Taylor totaled 13 tackles and although didn’t register a tackle for a loss, he was there right at or around the line of scrimmage on several occasions to prevent Tech from ripping off bigger runs.
Tennessee needed new players to emerge as play-makers this season on both sides of the ball. And these four Vols could be the new faces of the program for the next couple of years.