Given the talent on the field, there were no doubt plenty of NFL scouts among the record 156,900 people crammed into the Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night to watch Tennessee shake off a first quarter sleepwalk to pull away from Virginia Tech 45-24.
After a spectacular opening slate in college football, this inter-conference, border state rivalry game was the most anticipated matchup in a much tamer second week of the season, earning national coverage, a prime-time start and school legends Peyton Manning and Frank Beamer among the big names walking the sidelines.
The Hokies jumped out to an early 14-0 lead and after last week’s struggles with FCS Appalachian State, it looked like Tennessee might be on the verge of collapsing. Instead, the Vols finished the game on a 45-10 run, forcing three fumbles in the second half.
The key matchup between Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton and Virginia Tech wide receiver Isaiah Ford — two of the top-rated seniors at their respective positions — was worth the price of admission in itself.
On the surface, it would appear that Sutton and the Vols got the better of Ford. After all, he “only” caught five passes for 51 yards in a losing effort.
Ford, however, got behind Sutton on a beautiful double-move in the first quarter and might have given the Hokies an early big play had his quarterback, Jerod Evans, delivered the ball in time. Instead, Evans’ deep ball floated towards Ford, allowing Sutton to recover and rip the ball free as the receiver attempted to pull it in.
Sutton was clearly beaten on the play, aggressively biting on Ford’s initial move. He demonstrated the second gear and composure with the ball in the air scouts are looking for in a cover corner, however, and later won with his aggression, correctly anticipating a receiver screen to thwart another big play opportunity for the Hokies. The 5-foot-11, 186 pound preseason All-SEC pick demonstrated his agility and acceleration as a returner, as well, helping to spark Tennessee’s sluggish offense with some flashy moves.
Ford had few opportunities in this contest but showed off the intriguing blend of agility, speed and body control that has earned him the No. 3 spot on NFLDraftScout.com’s 2018 receiver rankings, just behind Southern Cal’s JuJu Smith-Schuster and Clemson’s Mike Williams.
Virginia Tech’s struggles in the passing game also limited Bucky Hodges’ production in this contest, though the 6-foot-6, 245-pound junior currently atop NFLDraftScout.com’s 2018 TE rankings showed off his versatility, rushing four times for 22 yards and catching three passes, albeit for just 13 yards.
It was more flash than finish for several of Tennessee’s top prospects, as well.
Defensive end Derek Barnett, a two-time All-SEC pick closing in on Reggie White’s all-time record for sacks at Tennessee, was largely contained in this contest. He was unable to get consistent pressure on Evans and gift-wrapped a first down for the Hokies by jumping off-sides early on. To Barnett’s credit, he showed off his strength and toughness as a run defender later in the game, helping to snuff out a later Hokies drive with an impressive stuff on 3rd-and-1.
Undersized linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin didn’t have one of his better games, either. A week after he was tossed out of the Appalachian State game for targeting, Reeves-Maybin was fortunate to not draw a personal foul for a questionable hit on a Virginia Tech player standing around the pile. Though the speedy and passionate defender made several impressive tackles, too often they came as a result on his lunging at ball-carriers. At times, his over-aggression got the better of him, including on a cut-back run from Virginia Tech’s talented redshirt sophomore running back Travon McMillian during the first half, when the game was still competitive.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Top NFL Draft prospects for Hokies, Vols shine, sputter at Bristol