KNOXVILLE -- As expected, Tennessee was without two starting linebackers for Saturday afternoon's game against Georgia State.
The Volunteers counted on two upperclassmen to fill the void in a 51-13 win against the Panthers at Neyland Stadium.
Willie Bohannon and Dontavis Sapp started in the places of Herman Lathers (shoulder sprain) and Curt Maggitt (turf toe), and both contributed to Tennessee's defensive effort.
"It's kind of hard to think about what you do best after a game," said Bohannon, a fifth-year senior who made his fifth career start. "You really think about what you messed up on, and I've just been thinking about a lot of mistakes I made. I think that I made the plays that came to me today versus missing out on them like I've been doing in the past."
Bohannon had just two tackles, but he forced a fumble on a first-half sack and pounced on another loose ball early in the fourth quarter.
Sapp, the junior who filled in for Lathers went down in the season opener, made four stops and chipped in 1.5 tackles for loss. Lathers and Maggitt hardly practiced all week, but Sapp said he didn't change his mindset. He also said his emergency experience last week helped him settle in quicker in his first career start.
"I prepared like I prepare every week," Sapp said. "It's just the fact that I got out there earlier this week. It really didn't matter if [Lathers] was going to play or not because I was going to prepare like I knew I was supposed to prepare and prepare like the starter."
The status of Lathers and Maggitt for next week's showdown with Florida is unknown. Lathers' injury is a sprain of his AC joint, while Maggitt, who was in a walking boot earlier in the week, has dreaded turf toe. That painful and lingering injury is difficult to shake, as cornerback Marsalis Teague battled it for nearly all of last season.
"They wouldn't have played no matter who we played this week," coach Derek Dooley said. "We need to get them back. I know that.
"We put Willie B. in for Curt, and he does a good job. Dontavis Sapp, he's playing pretty good for us. I've got to go see how he played. We still need those two guys back, but it's good not to have put a freshman in."
Tight end Mychal Rivera wanted to score a touchdown on his 22nd birthday.
"I'm happy," he said after catching four passes for 70 yards and a 19-yard second-quarter touchdown. "Last week I only had one catch. I felt like I could help the team more than that.
"I'm really confident in my abilities. I understand we have a lot of receivers, but I felt I could really help more. Today I showed it."
The senior missed a chunk of training camp with a knee sprain, and the Vols managed his snap count again Saturday. Dooley said Rivera wasn't happy with the Vols managing him in the opener, but the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder made his reps count in game two. The coach said 70 yards is a "good number" for the third option in Tennessee's passing game.
"It was good to get him going," Dooley said. "I think he came out of [opener] a little disappointed, but we're trying to manage him through. He looked good in the pass game there."
It took two games for Tennessee's kicking questions to come to the forefront after Michael Palardy pushed a 39-yard first-quarter field-goal try wide left and missed a third-quarter extra point.
"We need to make those, and I've got to go see what the issues were," Dooley said. "That's obviously a concern going forward. We'll go see what the issue was."
Backup Derrick Brodus trotted onto the field to a huge cheer from the crowd, booted a 25-yard fourth-quarter field goal and handled the ensuing kickoff.
Tennessee had "a couple of good little plays" from its wildcat package, which the Vols debuted with freshman Justin King in the third quarter. After a 5-yard plunge up the middle, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson took an option pitch from King for 18 yards. Fellow freshman Alton Howard also has worked on the package, which the Vols spend time practicing every day.
Most of the Vols' starters left the game in the third quarter. Receiver Cody Blanc and cornerback Deion Bonner were the only freshmen to play last week, but eight other first-year players debuted Saturday. Quenshaun Watson scored a touchdown in his first appearance.
Five players who redshirted last season also made their debuts, including safety Geraldo Orta, whose interception set up Watson's score.
Georgia's State first-quarter field goal provided the third-year program's first points on offense against a Football Bowl Subdivision team, as the Panthers were blanked by Houston last season and scored on a kickoff return against Alabama two years ago.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...