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Tennessee offense moves the football without another star. Sort of.

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Tennessee knew it would be a challenge to continue on without injured receiver Bru McCoy. The Vols managed to get by – just barely.

The Vols beat Texas A&M 20-13 in their first game after the Vols most touted receiver went down with a season-ending injury against South Carolina on Sept. 30. With no natural wideout to replace him, the Vols had to be creative and rely on some inexperienced wide receivers to pick up the slack – and one very experienced tight end.

Although not a true “receiver,” Tennessee tight end Jacob Warren led the charge with a touchdown reception in the first quarter. Warren has been a steady force this season with three touchdown catches after not reeling a scoring pass in last season.

Tennessee may not have a Biletnikoff Award winner on offense as they did last season with receiver Jalin Hyatt. They may not even have one singular answer to replace their No. 1 wideout as they did last season when McCoy took over for former Vol Cedric Tillman, whose season was maligned by an ankle injury this season.

McCoy’s injury would have seemingly open the door for a UT redshirt freshman: Chas Nimrod or Kaleb Webb. Both were named co-starters before the Vols’ home game against the Aggies. Nimrod saw most of the action on Saturday, catching four passes for 31 yards. Webb did not catch a pass. 

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Senior Ramel Keyton dropped an easy, would-be touchdown pass in the first quarter and failed to pull in a much tougher catch in the third quarter. Keyton finished the game with no catches. That won’t do. Sophomore Squirrel White, who has apparently secured the slot receiver position over highly touted transfer Dont’e Thornton Jr., caught three passes for 29 yards against the Aggies. Thornton did not make a catch, meaning it seems Tennessee’s coaches have settled on Keyton, Nimrod and White as their primary trio of receivers.

Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton completed 11 of 22 passes for 100 yards, a touchdown and an interception. As has been the case with Milton this season, the Vols kept the reigns on the senior. Milton’s bread-and-butter on Saturday consisted of screen passes and short-to-medium throws to either avoid his accuracy issues or a stout A&M defensive front. However, it was evident the Vols were going to rely on running the football early and throughout the game. Tennessee ran the ball for 237 yards on 48 carries, which made the passing game less important.

While the Vols are obviously not the team they were last year, an explosive group that relied on big, chunk plays, it remains to be seen if they can be championship caliber without more from the passing game. Certainly, the Vols, under Milton, don’t have the same passing attack as they did under former Vol quarterback Hendon Hooker last season. However, one has to wonder just how inept the Vols can be on offense and continue to beat quality opponents that lie ahead, such as Alabama in Tuscaloosa next week.

While the Vols have relied more on their running backs to move the ball, Milton’s runs have played a significant factor in keeping the Vols moving. Milton ran the ball eight times for 34 yards on Saturday and continues to look more comfortable running the football. Clearly, he has the athletic ability to do so.

Without its explosive offense from a year ago, Tennessee deserves some credit for overcoming some significant injuries this season, other than just McCoy. The Vols were without preseason All-SEC center Cooper Mays for the first four game of the season. Tennessee has also had to deal a variety of other injuries on their offensive line. 

There’s no question that Tennessee’s offense is far from elite and perhaps not even average. However, UT head coach Josh Heupel has managed to get the Vols to a 5-1 record despite a pair of key injuries. The Vols lost a game at Florida without Mays. They managed to avoid doing the same without McCoy in the lineup.

Had the Vols lost to A&M, there would be practically no chance for any sort of championship. Now, the Vols can still think of championship rings without McCoy. However, Tennessee had better  continue to improve on offense or they have practically no chance of finishing in the top half of the SEC East.

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