Tennessee wide receiver Alton Howard (2) catches a pass in front of Florida defensive back Cody Riggs (31) during the second half of an NCAA game.(AP Photo/John Raoux)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is missing its biggest playmakers from last season, and the Volunteers aren't making nearly enough big plays without them.
Quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter now are in the NFL, and nobody has stepped up in their absence. No Southeastern Conference team has a tougher time delivering long gains than Tennessee.
"You need big chunk plays," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We need somebody to turn a 5-yard hitch into a 35-yard gain."
Tennessee's offense has produced two plays of at least 40 yards through its first four games: Rajion Neal's 47-yard touchdown run against Austin Peay and Justin Worley's 51-yard pass to Josh Smith at No. 2 Oregon. Last year, the Vols had three plays go farther than 40 yards in the first quarter of their season opener.
Tennessee (2-2) heads into Saturday's game with South Alabama (2-1) having totaled four plays from scrimmage of at least 30 yards. For comparison's sake, No. 10 Texas A&M's offense has 16 gains of at least 30 yards. No. 9 Georgia has produced 14 plays from scrimmage of at least 30 yards in only three games.
No. 20 Florida is the only other SEC team with just four gains of 30-plus yards, but the Gators have played one less game than Tennessee. The lack of big-play ability affects how teams defend the Vols and makes it tougher for Tennessee to run the ball.
"They're stacking guys in the box," senior offensive guard Zach Fulton said. "We just have to prove that we can pass the ball, too. That's all it is."
This represents a sharp contrast from last season, when Tennessee's offense had 19 gains of at least 40 yards and 27 plays of 30-plus yards. The guys responsible for many of those plays now are making them on Sundays. Patterson, a first-round draft pick, has a 105-yard kickoff return this season for the Minnesota Vikings. Hunter, a second-round selection, had a game-winning 34-yard touchdown catch Sunday with 15 seconds remaining in the Tennessee Titans' 20-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Losing Patterson, Hunter and Bray left Tennessee without any experience at the skill positions. Worley entered the season with only three career starts. Tennessee's three leading receivers are two freshmen (Marquez North and Smith) and a sophomore (Alton "Pig" Howard).
"We need to find some playmakers," Worley said. "We've had guys step up these past couple of weeks who've done a really good job, especially in practice, building trust and things like that. It's a work in progress, but we're making strides."
Jones opened up the quarterback competition last week in his search for more big plays and awarded redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman his first career start. Peterman went 4 of 11 for 5 yards with two interceptions and a fumble in a 31-17 loss to Florida, and he now is out at least four weeks with an injured right hand.
That leaves the Vols relying on Worley to get more aggressive without committing turnovers. If Worley and his young receivers can't keep defenses honest, opponents will continue loading up to stop the run and holding this offense in check.
"What's happening now is our body of work is on video, so everyone now has four games on us," Jones said. "You have to prove you can beat man coverage, or you're going to keep seeing it. We live in a copycat-type deal where coaches are going to follow game plans of other opponents that have had success. That's the way football works. You have to be able to prove that you can beat certain things."
A big play here or there would be a big help.