KNOXVILLE — Any highlight reel or replay of Tennessee’s season opener against Western Kentucky is sure to give the Volunteers instant advertising in their recruiting efforts.
From beginning to end, Saturday’s game showed freshmen making plays.
Three rookies found the end zone and 10 members of Lane Kiffin’s first recruiting class saw the field in an easy 63-7 win over the Hilltoppers.
“I think it sends a strong message,” said Vols freshman running back David Oku, who scored two touchdowns. “Like Coach Kiffin says, if you’re a freshman and you can play, then you will play.
“I think it sends a tremendous message. A lot of freshmen really want to come in and play right away.”
Oku did. So did Bryce Brown. So did Marsalis Teague, a surprise starter opposite Quintin Hancock at receiver. Oku, Brown and Teague all scored touchdowns in their collegiate debut.
“I really can’t describe how I felt,” Brown said of his first college game. “Tremendous atmosphere. The Vol Walk was amazing. I’ve never seen nothing like it.”
The No. 1 prospect available in the 2009 recruiting class according to Rivals.com, Brown said the entire game-day atmosphere definitely let him know he made the right choice by signing with Tennessee. He had never been to a game at Neyland Stadium before Saturday.
Nu’Keese Richardson, one of the Vols’ other promising receivers, saw the field three ways. He made three catches for 30 yards, returned three punts for 30 total yards and ran for an 8-yard gain in his one snap out of Tennessee’s alternative quarterback package.
Some call that look the “Nu Gun,” an homage to the now extinct “G-Gun” run with Gerald Jones. Others have called it the “Nukular Option.”
Richardson doesn’t care what it’s called so long as it means he plays.
“It was crazy and it was everything I expected it to be,” he said. “I liked everything from the fans, to hitting the field, taking the field, everything.”
Richardson did not expect, however, to line up at QB.
“Coach just called me over and told me ‘We’ve got the play called for you next. Make something happen,’” Richardson said.
He might have tried to do too much on his first collegiate play. After the Vols forced a three-and-out on Western Kentucky’s opening drive, Richardson went deep to return the punt. It didn’t go well. Richardson let the ball bounce, muffed the catch and lost yardage in the recovery.
Dennis Rogan returned the next punt, but Richardson got two more chances later in the game, making his greatest gain on a 19-yard return.
Freshman defensive backs Darren Myles Jr., Janzen Jackson and Mike Edwards all played, as did Greg King and Nigel Mitchell-Thornton at linebacker and Montori Hughes at defensive tackle.
“WE DON’T DO THAT:” Brown ripped off an impressive 34-yard run in his first game as a Vol, but he heard about it from position coach Eddie Gran when he returned to the sideline.
“He told me not to run out of bounds, but I was exhausted. After that, he put me right back in,” Brown said.
The freshman violated one of the rules UT backs live by under Gran.
“We don’t do that at Tennessee,” Brown said. “We don’t run out of bounds. “
COOL CUSTOMER: Kiffin showed a little ruthlessness at different points throughout the game.
Late in the first half after UT had just taken a 28-0 lead, the Vols used all three timeouts during the ensuing Western Kentucky possession so they’d get the ball back before the half ended.
With 12:26 left in the fourth quarter and the Vols sporting a 49-7 lead, Kiffin put backup quarterback Nick Stephens in the game. The first play? A play-action pass from Stephens to Richardson that reaped 27 yards.
The Vols sporadically went to the shotgun throughout the fourth.
“It’s a lot of fun because when you know you’ve got talented players surrounding you, anyone’s capable of making the big play,” Richardson said.
ANOTHER PASS: Peyton Manning was on hand before the game to dedicate the Peyton Manning Locker Room.
The former Vol and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback also announced he was making an additional $1 million donation.
“Tennessee has been such an important part of my life since I’ve left here,” Manning said. “I want the future student-athletes who are coming here to have a chance to have the best support around them. I still want us to be able to attract the student-athletes. Believe it or not, it’s time to upgrade some facilities.”
FAMOUS FACES: A ton of individuals from Tennessee past made appearances at the game.
In addition to Manning, former players like Joey Kent and Terry Fair were there. Albert Haynesworth, the multimillionaire defensive end of the Washington Redskins, was on the Vols’ sideline at the end of the game and got a quick half-hug from Kiffin before the Tennessee coach ran into the locker room.
Former UT coaches Phillip Fulmer and Johnny Majors also were supposed to be at the game.
Also in attendance? George Mooney, John Ward’s predecessor as the Vols’ play-by-play radio announcer.
MAHELONA KILLED: Former Tennessee defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona died in a car crash in his home state of Hawaii on Friday night.
Mahelona received All-America honors in his first season at UT in 2004 after tallying 18.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
The 26-year-old Mahelona is survived by his wife, Brandi, who is expecting their second child.
EXTRA POINTS: This marks the first time Vols have had a plus-.500 record since the end of the 2007 season. Tennessee played at or below .500 all of last year. … Receiver Denarius Moore, who broke his foot this summer and wasn’t expected back until next week against UCLA, made a surprise appearance and caught one pass for 4 yards. … Linebackers Savion Frazier and Nick Reveiz paced the Vols with six tackles apiece. … Wes Brown notched two sacks as part of 12 tackles for loss by the UT defense. … Brent Vinson snared an interception in the second half for the Vols. … Chad Cunningham was excellent on kickoff duty, and got plenty of it. He averaged 66.6 yards per kickoff with two touchbacks. … Attendance was shy of a sellout, at 98,761.
THE LAST WORD: “We kick, what, nine extra points a game and we’ll win a lot of football games, wearing a nice ring at the end of it. I’ll never have any complaints about kicking nine extra points.” — UT placekicker Daniel Lincoln, who attempted no field goals in the Vols’ win