Tennessee is 4-1 coming off an open date. That’s no surprise.
Most people projected the Vols to go 9-3 this season and many had UT with one loss before the bye week, losing to either Florida or South Carolina.
Alabama and Georgia we assumed to be losses with Texas A&M, UT’s next opponent, a potential defeat.
While Tennessee’s record is about what you would expect, two players have been pleasant surprises with the impact they’ve made almost halfway through the season.
We’ll start with offense.
Dylan Sampson was a shifty, scatback from Geismar, La., just outside of Baton Rouge. Despite his electrifying speed (4.32 in the 40, 10.48 in the 100 meters) some major schools shied away due to his size (5-11, about 175 pounds).
Sampson was rated a three-star by ESPN.com and several other recruiting services. He was the No. 30 running back in the nation, the No. 15 prospect in Louisiana.
But there was no denying his production. He rushed for 1,327 yards in eight games as a junior. He rushed for 1,374 yards as a senior, averaging a stunning 9.28 yards per carry. He broke the school rushing record of 4,927 yards, surpassing former Alabama and NFL star Eddie Lacy.
As a Tennessee freshman, Sampson showed flashes of brilliance. He had 57 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries against Akron. He had 98 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Missouri. He had 131 yards and a score (an 80-yard run) on 12 carries against Vanderbilt.
Though he averaged an impressive 6.8 yards per carry in 2022, he whiffed on a block in pass protection against LSU, causing a sack against quarterback Hendon Hooker.
Sampson’s playing time was somewhat reduced after that. He worked hard on his pass blocking to earn more playing time, but he still entered this season as No. 3 on the depth chart, behind Jaylin Wright and Jabari Small.
It didn’t take long for Sampson to gain the nation’s attention. He scored four touchdowns on 14 touches in the season opener against Virginia. His nose for the goal line was obvious.
But for some reason, Sampson had just four touches against Austin Peay and didn’t play at Florida.
He re-emerged against Texas-San Antonio with 159 yards and two scores on 14 touches.
Against South Carolina, he had 59 yards on nine carries – all in the second half — and two receptions for 42 yards. He scored once.
Sampson is averaging 7.2 yards on 36 carries. He has 80 yards on five catches. He has scored seven touchdowns on 41 touches.
He is explosive, dynamic, quick, cuts on a dime, runs with vision and has surprising power for a 190-pounder.
My advice: Feed him. He should get 12-15 touches per game. He is averaging 10 – and that doesn’t factor in not playing at Florida.
Sampson said he patterns his game after former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. Sampson appears to be more Bush-like with each game.
Sampson has established himself as not only one of the best backs in the SEC, but one of the best backs in the nation.
The most surprising defensive player is edge rusher James Pearce Jr.
Like Sampson, Pearce showed flashes as a freshman.
Unlike Sampson, Pearce was a coveted recruit, a five-star prospect out of Charlotte.
Pearce had two sacks last year, but you could see the potential with his speed rushes.
In this season’s opener, he had two sacks against Viginia. He had two more against South Carolina. He has a team-high five sacks on the season to rank among the SEC leaders. He has seven tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries – although the latter figure seems low.
Pearce is extremely athletic at 6-5 and 242.
Special teams coach Mike Ekeler said Pearce was timed in a 4.1 with a running start on the punt coverage team.
Pearce appears destined to be an All-SEC player and a high NFL draft pick.