Kicking off a Season to Remember

Vols Season Opener - Sept. 1

This is the year that all tickets and parking passes to UT games at Neyland Stadium are digital. I successfully flashed my parking pass from my Apple Wallet at the 11th Street lot and walked past the Hill and toward the stadium. Under the Pedestrian Walkway bridge by the Student Union, several scalpers plied their trade—“Anyone have extra tickets?”—switching e-tickets from one phone to another with no problem. UT scalpers always find a way.

2022 Season Opener at Neyland Stadium

At Humanities Plaza, a carnival atmosphere prevailed at Toyota Volunteer Village. The band Kelsey’s Woods played a lively Rocky Top, which was punctuated by a tepid “Woo” from the bystanders. “Y’all are getting there,” encouraged lead singer Dave Kennedy, behind his brown Gibson J-45 acoustic. “It’s a first game and it’s a Thursday. It’s kinda funny playing next to the Humanities Building. Twenty years ago there were lots of classes I didn’t go to in there.” Kennedy, an English major, graduated in 2005. “Shoulda been ’04,” he said, laughing. Next on the play list was Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ (“She’s a good girl, loves her mamma . . .”) followed by Living on Tulsa Time. 

Parked alongside the HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) Building, the United Way of Greater Knoxville “Unite for Change” Airstream RV was open for business. “We call it the Changemobile,” said Sarah Shires, director of major gifts, who handed out clear bags that meet the strict stadium rules on what fans can bring in. Danielle Velez, program manager for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library of Knox County, handed out sign-up information. 

Among the tents—D1 Training, facepainting, Fan Information—WLVT meteorologist Paige Noel handed out “I’m All Vol” buttons. Nearer Volunteer Boulevard, longtime WVLT anchor Alan Williams did interviews as fans got photos with a Josh Heupel cutout. Among countless parents beginning the indoctrination of infants and toddlers to Volunteer rituals were Emily and Will Coley, smiling proudly with 10-month-old Blair in his front pack and Reece, 3, holding Emily’s hand. Will played linebacker at West High School and the Air Force Academy and is now an assistant professor of aerospace studies and No. 2 man in UT’s Air Force ROTC. 

At 4:35, a segment of the Pride of the Southland Band played Rocky Top as it marched down Peyton Manning Pass (a lusty woo from the crowd this time) with Davy Crockett waving the T flag behind them. At 4:45 came the majestic Vol Walk, led by Heupel and his family, past the Torchbearer. Toward the end of the procession, a younger player—it might have been receiver Squirrel White—saw a 4-year-old standing with his grandparents. The player walked over, bent down, and offered a fist bump. Overcome with shyness, the tiny tot hid behind his grandma’s leg and shied away. “He was so embarrassed, he didn’t know what to do,” explained Grandma. Where is Norman Rockwell when you need him? 

A Dominating Victory and Gametime for Many 

On the first play of the game, Ball State tried a reverse flea flicker. Defensive back Tamarion McDonald wasn’t fooled and picked off the pass. “Production meets opportunity,” explained McDonald. On the next play his roommate Jalin Hyatt caught Hendon Hooker’s pass on the right side and ran it in for a 23-yard touchdown. In the postgame interviews, Hyatt revealed that two days earlier, while watching TV  in their apartment, McDonald had said, “I’m gonna get me a pick,” and Hyatt had said, “I’m gonna score first.” They said cornerback Kamal Hadden and running back Jaylen Wright were present and could serve as witnesses to their calling their shots, like Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series. Heupel said McDonald “is a different person than he was a year ago. It was great to see him start the ball game the way he did.”

The attendance was 92, 236—8,000 more than for the opener a year ago. “We appreciate our fans coming out in a big way,” said Heupel. With a sizeable lead throughout the game, the Vols were able to get many players in the game. Twenty-five players had tackles on defense. Cornerback Christian Charles took part in eight tackles, with three solos. As suggested in our preview, defensive tackle Omari Thomas batted away a pass at the line.

2022 Season Opener at Neyland Stadium

Ten receivers had catches. “It was wonderful,” said Hooker. “I like to spread the ball around and get the ball in playmakers’ hands.” Southern Cal transfer Bru McCoy, who was declared eligible by the NCAA just days before the game, caught three passes. “He had a smile on his face all night,” said Hooker. “Playing at a high level is what he came here to do.” Cedric Tillman caught six; Jimmy Holiday four; Ramel Keyton four; freshman Squirrel White three; Hyatt two; and sophomore Walker Merrill two, including a 16-yard touchdown from Hooker in the second quarter that made the game 38-0. 

Backup QB Joe Milton came in in the fourth quarter and looked sharp, completing eight of nine passes. The one incompletion, though thrown harder than it needed to be, went through the hands of No. 3 tight end Hunter Salmon in the end zone. A few minutes later, Milton hit Holiday cutting from the right sideline across the middle for a 57-yard score. Milton’s QB rating for the evening was 231. “Joe played awesome,” said Hooker. “The main thing is for us to keep our foot on the gas. We’ve said all along there’s not gonna be a dropoff when he’s in the game.” Said Heupel, “We felt Joe has grown from the time he came back in January. He showed some of the things we saw in spring ball and training camp.” 

Of Holiday’s 57-yard scamper, Hyatt said, “We all know he’s an explosive player. He’s been working in the off-season. It’s what you call brotherhood.” Hooker added, “We pride ourselves on having the best brotherhood in college football.”  

No. 3 quarterback Tayven Jackson played a series. No. 4 QB Gaston Moore came in and completed a pass to Knox Catholic grad Jack Jancek for 17 yards, giving Moore a QB rating of 242.8 for the evening. Even walk-on Navy Shuler, wearing No. 21 like his dad, Heath, took some snaps.  

Next up: The Volunteers travel to Pittsburgh for a 3:30 p.m. game on Saturday, Sept. 10, against the pesky No. 17-ranked Pitt Panthers, who edged West Virginia in a 38-31 cliffhanger, also on Thursday evening. Pitt beat UT 41-34 last year, but much has changed for both teams since then. 

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