Up until the first play of the second quarter at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Volunteers were everyone’s favorite whipping boys. When you start the season as a preseason No. 9 but need lucky breaks to beat Appalachian State and start down 14-0 against Virginia Tech, the internet will turn on you.
Then Bob Shoop’s defense forced a fumble on an option by JUCO transfer QB Jerod Evans, a Volunteer landed on it, and Tennessee was at the Hokie 5-yard line.
Thirty-one unanswered points later, and Tennessee was 2-0 with a good chance at a SEC East title. The schedule -- which features Florida next week, a trip to Athens, and a home date with Alabama -- is going to tell us everything about this Vols team.
That said, here’s what we can glean from those first two games against solid opponents.
Here’s what Tennessee’s offense does well.
Butch Jones’ staff uses a spread-to-run offense built around downhill running, with enough passing to serve as a constraint when opponents load the box.
Of the 115 touches in the Vols’ 2016 season, 73 were runs by either RB Jalen Hurd or QB Joshua Dobbs, which have gone for 311 yards (4.26 per carry) and three touchdowns. Since Dobbs is 6’3, 210 and Hurd is 6’4, 240, the Vols have the ability to hammer teams between the tackles.
What’s more, their line (averaging 6’4, 308) is taught to emphasize double teams at the point of attack, then take on linebackers. The Vols love running weak-side zone ...
... and counter ...
... behind double teams at the point of attack. On counter, they even double-team the backside defensive tackle (the "T" on the right, above) and initially leave the backside defensive end (the right "E") unblocked, with Dobbs reading him, so he could pull the ball and run if that DE tries to crash toward the running back.
Thanks to the emphasis on double teams, Hurd and Dobbs often have little more to do than bull ahead and drag defenders for positive gains.
Neither of these runners is particularly explosive, but they make for a one-two punch up the middle of the field that’s difficult to stop.
But Tennessee’s not very explosive.
The Vols have been good at picking up small chunks of yardage on the ground, but they have lacked explosiveness all over.
Tennessee is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 5.9 per pass, surrendering 4.2 per carry and 6.3 per pass on defense. UT ranks No. 113 in the country in 10-yard plays on offense, with only 19 through two games.
Having a reliable run game is valuable for efficiency, finishing drives, securing field position, and avoiding turnovers. It’s not hard for Tennessee to gain yardage or finish with points once in the red zone. (They’ve also been lucky so far with turnovers, recovering five of their six fumbles.) But the Vols have to string together a lot of successful plays in order to score.
There are two reasons the Vols aren’t explosive.
First, neither Dobbs nor Hurd has breakaway speed. Both can be chopped down by good, low tackles.
At 6’4, Hurd’s got a big strike zone to hit. On this play, Hurd breaks outside on a well-blocked RB counter, but is prevented from a bigger gain by a low tackle:
Here we see Dobbs on QB counter. It’s blocked very well and gives him a one-on-one against a safety:
He makes a nice cut upfield, but he’s dropped quickly. This isn’t a big sin for a quarterback, but when the RB is also prone to the same kind of tackle, you’d rather have your secondary runner offer the defense a different look. More on a potential option in a second.
The second reason for the Vols’ lack of explosiveness: their passing game isn’t very good. Watch Tennessee execute standard spread concepts like four verticals ...
... which you see Dobbs read properly, but totally air mail, or smash ...
... and you’ll see poor timing, poor protection, and inaccurate throws. You get the sense that the Vols spend the better part of their practice time nailing down their run game, perhaps because they feel their passing game has a ceiling.
So how can Tennessee get more explosive?
Because of this running game, it’s always going to be fairly easy for Jones’ staff to set up UT’s receivers with one-on-one opportunities. Opponents are not going to want to allow Hurd to get loose to the sideline, where he can build up speed and use his length to stiff arm, so they are going to tend to send defenders into the box.
Developing the senior Dobbs as a passer is going to take more patience, so punishing opponents with deep throws isn’t going to solve all of the Vols’ problems overnight.
A quicker fix would be to get the ball to RB Alvin Kamara. He has 15 touches for 75 yards so far this season, and he was far more explosive than Hurd last season, when he also contributed to the return game, which might've been the best part of UT's offense, in a way. The 5’10, 195-pounder adds a different dimension, a quick start and explosiveness that could make a huge difference.
Here’s an example of how they’re already using Kamara:
This is a simple flare screen, attached to a QB counter play. When Virginia Tech leaves its middle linebacker in the box to contend with the run, Dobbs uses that simple read to know he has a three-on-three if he throws the quick screen to Kamara.
The Hokies defend this pretty well, with the nickel getting outside of the slot and trying to force the ball back inside to the free safety, but Kamara’s speed (and maybe a little bit of a block in the back) still mean a 15-yard gain.
When you get the ball to an athlete like Kamara in space, you have a margin for error. What’s more, it’s easy for the Vols to involve him in the plays they’re already executing well (power, counter, zone read) by either having him run screens, quick routes, or sweeps attached to their main runs.
Many of Kamara’s touches have been basic runs, where he’s not necessarily an upgrade over Hurd or Dobbs. If they can get him 10 touches a game, receiving the ball in space like in the example above, they can boost their weak passing numbers and gain some of the explosiveness they’ll need to outscore big opponents.