KNOXVILLE (David Climer) – They say speed kills.
For Tennessee's Vols, a lack of speed has killed the last several seasons. It's one of the biggest reasons UT has posted a winning record only once since 2007.
Things are changing. The Vols team Butch Jones put on the field against Utah State in the season-opener on Sunday night was markedly faster from the top of the roster to the bottom.
Initial results were impressive. UT overwhelmed Utah State 38-7 in a performance that hinted better days are ahead thanks to a major roster makeover. A total of 21 true freshmen and 11 other newcomers (junior college transfers and redshirt freshmen) played for the Vols.
Obviously, much work remains. The Vols are coming off four straight losing seasons. An opening victory over a team from the Mountain West Conference doesn't mean UT's program is back on solid footing.
It is, however, a step in the right direction – a fast step in the right direction.
"I think we really improved our team speed," Jones said after the game. "I thought we were very active."
Exactly how much faster the Vols have gotten through recruiting and via work with the strength/conditioning staff will become apparent in upcoming weeks. On Sept. 13, UT plays at Oklahoma. Then the SEC grind begins with back-to-back games against Georgia and Florida.
But for the Vols, this was a start. Utah State arrived at Neyland Stadium as a popular upset pick. The Aggies were coming off a 9-5 season and have a quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who is on several Heisman Trophy watch lists.
He dropped off most of those lists by the end of the game.
The Vols' improved speed on defense seemed to rattle Keeton. Although he is regarded as one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks, Keeton didn't present much of a running threat against the Vols. He ran eight times for a net gain of 12 yards and was intercepted twice.
"A lot of it is just the overall speed and athleticism we've been able to gain defensively," Jones said.
Added senior linebacker A.J. Johnson: "We're a lot faster. We've got D-linemen that can move and make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket."
Offensively, senior quarterback Justin Worley was efficient early and spot-on as the game progressed. He completed 13 consecutive passes at one point – the fourth-longest streak in UT history – and finished the night 27-of-38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns.
Worley has benefited from two things: experience and an upgraded corps of receivers. Injecting threats like junior college transfer Von Pearson and freshman Josh Malone to the rotation certainly has made Worley's job easier.
On the 13-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that upped UT's lead to 24-0 in the third quarter, Worley completed all six of his pass attempts to four different receivers and added a nice 6-yard run on a keeper.
"The game is moving slower than it used to," Worley said. "… My confidence is a lot higher."
The touchdown on that drive came on a short pass to Pearson, who cut outside blocks by Jason Croom and Johnathon Johnson and outran the pursuit to score from 14 yards out. It's the kind of play the coaches can draw up, but it takes someone like Pearson to make it work.
"It's nice knowing I don't have to make perfect throws," Worley said.
In sum, the victory came much more easily than most expected. The Vols scored twice in the span of 14 seconds to take a 14-0 lead barely six minutes into the game, and Utah State never recovered.
The second of those early touchdowns was a direct result of Jones' decision to put some of his best players on special teams. After the Vols took a 7-0 lead on Pig Howard's 8-yard run, freshman Aaron Medley of Lewisburg kicked off, and Utah State's Kennedy Williams returned it straight upfield.
But Johnson was coming straight upfield from the opposite direction.
The resulting collision separated Williams from the ball, and Vols freshman Todd Kelly Jr, recovered at the Aggies 12. Worley hit tight end Brendan Downs on the next play to push the Vols up 14-0 with 9:09 left in the first quarter.
Despite the win, these Vols remain a work in progress. The rebuilding process is far from complete, with obvious shortcomings in a number of areas.
The new offensive line got little push in the run game and was haphazard in pass protection in the first half before improving in the second.
Defensively, it was hard to tell just how far the Vols have come because Utah State was so limited. Moving forward, depth is an issue for the Vols, particularly in the defensive interior and linebacker.
But considering where this program has been, the opening victory was a welcome uptick.
Reach David Climer at 615-259-8020 or on Twitter @DavidClimer.