ATLANTA — Junior-college transfers can be fool’s gold, but many glittered for Tennessee during its season-opening 35-21 win against North Carolina State Friday night in the Georgia Dome.
Volunteers receiver Cordarrelle Patterson made a pronounced premier. Patterson, who came to UT this summer as the nation’s No. 1 juco receiver, has been asked repeatedly by teachers, reporters, etc., how to pronounce his first name (COR-darrell).
Almost apologetically, he says he’s okay with ‘CP’ — and so is Tennessee after his initial impact. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Patterson scored two touchdowns in the first quarter and finished with 165 yards total offense.
Patterson was one of several jucos who were productive for UT. Safety Byron Moore had a team-high eight tackles and an interception. Maurice Couch forced a fumble, and fellow juco defensive lineman Dan McCullers batted down a pass and drew the attention of three offensive linemen on more than one occasion.
The more you heard in the offseason about Patterson, the more you remembered Kenny O’Neal, who was also the top-ranked juco wideout when he arrived at UT in 2007. The speedy O’Neal flunked out after making two catches for 59 yards in one season.
Even UT coach Derek Dooley didn’t know what to expect in Patterson’s debut, especially with reigning 1,000-yard receiver Da’Rick Rogers transferring to Tennessee Tech last week and Justin Hunter playing in his first game since a tearing an ACL last September.
“I wasn’t sure how he (Patterson) was gonna handle just the whole atmosphere,” Dooley said, “and he did great — he really did. He seemed calm, seemed like he belonged out there and he obviously made some huge plays to help us.”
Reserve duty: Sophomore running back Marlin Lane entered the game as a third-stringer, but was more productive than starter Rajion Neal and backup Devrin Young. Neal had 22 carries for 53 yards. Lane had nine carries for 75 yards.
“I give Marlin a lot of credit,” Dooley said. “He comes in this game third-team and it’s easy for him to get frustrated and down. You know, he was our second-team guy last year and had a lot of aspirations this year. But it just shows when your attitude is right, you don’t get frustrated and you stay with it, good things happen.
“He was a big difference for us. I wouldn’t have predicted he would’ve been our leading rusher before the game, but he was. And it shows a lot about his character. … Then you say why was he third team. It’s a good question.”
Tennessee had problems running at times. The running backs averaged less than four yards per carry, and that’s including a 42-yarder by Lane.
Dooley said the offensive line deserved some blame, and that the Wolfpack defensive line deserved some credit.
“They’re an underrated defensive line and they were pushing us a little bit,” Dooley said. “I mean, 3rd-and-1, 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 — we’ve gotta get that. So it’s not all on the backs.”
Quarterback Tyler Bray helped loosen up the box with some deep throws. But as pretty as Bray’s long touchdown passes to Patterson and Zach Rogers were — each ball found receivers in stride after traveling 55 yards in the air — Dooley thought his throwaways and dump-offs were things of beauty.
Bray didn’t turn the ball over, while fellow 6-foot-6 counterpart Mike Glennon produced four picks.
“Tyler did a good job with the ball, especially in the red area,” Dooley said. “You know, that’s where he tends to get a little aggressive, and they were playing zone — they knew it. … He didn’t make a bad mistake.”
Busted coverage: North Carolina State had 407 yards and probably left another 50-75 on the field with some misconnections to wide-open receivers, which were in abundance, particularly in the first half.
“We have to go clean up a ton of mistakes,” Dooley said.
The Wolfpack offense gained 162 yards in the first quarter. An up-tempo attack Tennessee had prepared for nonetheless gave it trouble, especially early, in its first game under new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
“We were on our heels,” Dooley said. “We weren’t looking to the sideline getting the call. It was a little bit — we were in this survival mode. And we settled down better the second half. They actually looked over to see what we were calling, which was, you know, you’ve gotta do that to play good defense.”
The defense was slowed when senior linebacker Herman Lathers’ injury-plagued career took yet another hit.
“He dinged his shoulder, but I don’t know what the extent of it was,” Dooley said.
Junior Dontavis Sapp replaced Lathers in the second half. He had a tackle for loss and a big hit on quarterback Mike Glennon on an incompletion.
Fan appreciation: Many of Tennessee’s fans, who decidedly outnumbered North Carolina State’s turnout, appeared more appreciative than jubilant to see their Vols look pretty good against a pretty good team. Tennessee, leading 22-7 at the end of the first quarter, switched ends of the field to a standing ovation.
“The fan base is (always) energized … and they get really energized when you don’t play well, which they should,” Dooley said. “I want to tell you, it was incredible tonight. I mean, you look up in the stands and it was all orange. So the fans haven’t let us down yet, and hopefully we won’t let them down this year.”
The fans could be treated to an SEC East race. Georgia appears to have the easiest schedule and arguably the best blend of experience, talent and balance, but the division appears wide open relative to most years in the previous two decades.
South Carolina clearly will miss 6-foot-4 receiver Alshon Jeffery, and who knows how quarterback Connor Shaw’s throwing shoulder will feel after a grueling 17-13 win at Vanderbilt.
James Franklin’s Commodores might even be capable of factoring into a race in which Florida is young and Kentucky seems like the only afterthought.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, it must play road games at Georgia and South Carolina. Not that Dooley’s evaluating schedules at this point.
“Well, it’s one game, because I already know you guys are gonna say, you know, we’re there, we’re on our way,” Dooley said. “It’s one game, and all that matters is we’re 1-0. … We’re not gonna sit there … and pat oursevles on the back because we won one game.”
But unlike Dooley’s first two seasons, Tennessee at least appears to have a realistic chance to contend in the East.
“Hopefully we get a chance,” Sapp said, “to come back and play in Georgia in a few months.”