The Vols got off to a slow start on offense in their season opener, and the defense started strong. But as the offense continued to struggle, the defense was left out on the field far too long and too often, and eventually they began to wear down. But Tennessee’s offense finally started to put things together late in the second half, and it was just in time to save the Vols from losing their first game of the 2017 season.
Many players helped contribute to Tennessee’s comeback victory on Monday night. And we here at Rocky Top Insider want to hand out our game balls to the best performers in all three phases of the game from the Vols’ season opener.
Here are our RTI Game Balls for Week 1.
Offense – Marquez Callaway, WR
When Jauan Jennings left the game with a wrist injury in the second quarter, Tennessee’s struggling offense appeared to be in big trouble. Quinten Dormady had been almost exclusively targeting only Jennings, Ethan Wolf, and John Kelly in the passing game. Someone was going to have to step up.
And that someone was sophomore Marquez Callaway.
Callaway broke out in a big way in the second half of the Vols’ 42-41 win, hauling in four catches for 115 yards and two scores. Callaway had two receptions of 40 yards or more, including a 50-yard touchdown that showed off his speed and elusiveness. If not for Callaway, Tennessee’s passing offense might have been buried.
John Kelly was also strongly considered for the offense’s game ball, but Callaway’s timely production when the Vols needed someone in the receiving corps to step up earned him the Week 1 game ball.
Defense – Daniel Bituli, LB
There are a small handful of players who could’ve been given the Week 1 game ball on defense. Darrell Taylor showed off his skill against Georgia Tech and turned in a solid performance, and Rashaan Gaulden had a good overall game and forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter that would set up the Vols’ game-tying drive.
But there was one player whose performance came out of nowhere and filled up the stat sheet. And that was sophomore linebacker Daniel Bituli.
Bituli finished Monday’s season opener with a whopping 23 tackles, and he forced a fumble in the first half that led to Tennessee’s first touchdown of the game.
The craziest part? Bituli wasn’t even supposed to start on Monday. Austin Smith was supposed to be Tennessee’s third linebacker, but he suffered an injury late into the game week, and Bituli was forced into the starting role for the season opener. And he flourished in it, and he earns our defensive game ball for Week 1.
Special Teams – Trevor Daniel, P
Evan Berry looked great on the two kickoff returns he had, but he didn’t get the ball enough to earn the special teams game ball this week. This week, that honor goes to punter Trevor Daniel.
Daniel not only boomed some huge punts in Tennessee’s season opener (he had one go for 70 yards), but almost all of his punts pinned Georgia Tech’s offense deep inside their own territory and tried to help the Vols’ struggling defense. Five of Daniel’s six punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.
On the night, Daniel finished with six punts for an average of 47 yards per punt. He was truly the weapon the Vols needed in special teams, and he earns our first special teams game ball of 2017.