Passing grade

Figuring out why Tennessee ranks 10th among the 12 SEC teams in passing efficiency is easy. Figuring out how to fix the problem is not.

No one expected the 2010 Big Orange aerial attack to resemble those of the Peyton Manning era. After all, the Vols are breaking in a new quarterback and five new starters in the offensive line. Their best receiver, Gerald Jones, is sidelined by a hand injury. In his absence, the team is relying heavily on freshmen Justin Hunter and Da' Rick Rogers.

Like most first-year starting quarterbacks, Matt Simms is struggling with his consistency. He threw touchdown passes of 49 and 35 yards last weekend vs. Florida but also missed some open receivers and threw two costly interceptions. Still, he has the full support of his teammates.

"I see major progress from when he first got here," said Denarius Moore, who caught the 49-yard bomb against the Gators. "He's learned the offense, knowing who he's supposed to look at. He's come a long way."

There is a long way still to go, however. Simms ranks ninth among the SEC's starting QBs with a passer-efficiency rating of 120.9. He seems confident in his arm but not his decision-making.

Head coach Derek Dooley believes Simms is tentative, thinking too much and trusting his instincts too little.

"The first thing is being confident with his decision (of where and when to throw)," Dooley said. "And then I think on a lot of his deeper balls he's driving them instead of putting some air under it. I think those two things right there will help."

Driving the deep ball helps prevents interceptions but it also limits the receiver's opportunity to adjust to the ball's flight and make a play.

"Forget about the mechanics and all that other stuff." Dooley said. "Give our guys a chance on the deeper balls. We've got some guys that can go up and get it, and we're not even giving 'em a chance."

Simms might be more inclined to put the ball up for grabs if he had his go-to receiver available. Jones caught six passes for 86 yards in the opener but will miss his third consecutive outing this weekend vs. UAB. Moore has caught nine passes for 152 yards but would be even more productive if he had Jones around to distract opposing defensive backs.

Moore concedes that Jones is sorely missed in terms of "being able to spread the field ... the defense not being able to worry about just one player ... his ability to open up the defense."

Clearly, Jones' absence puts added pressure on Moore. So does the inexperience of Tennessee's offensive line. Vol wideouts know they must get open quickly since the young blockers are still learning to pass protect.

"That's something we have to take upon ourselves - knowing we have to make our routes quicker, knowing the timing of the routes and knowing the coverage to be able to run that route," Moore said.

With a new quarterback, new pass protectors and two freshmen among the top four receivers, getting everyone on the same page is a struggle - even in a scheme as basic as Tennessee's.

"I don't think we're doing too much," Dooley said. "We're doing a lot less than anywhere I've been, so I don't think that's the case. I think it's just a case of they've got to get comfortable with it and commit."

Even when he has a proven quarterback, experienced blockers and veteran receivers, Dooley tends to keep things simple.

"What I always say is, you don't have to do anything special, especially in big games," he said. "You just have to keep the game simple and do your job. Sometimes, with all the external things that are happening, your job appears harder than it actually is.

"It's not as hard as we're making it."

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