Vols made big strides in 2014

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Tennessee won seven games in 2014, two more than it won in 2013. Tennessee earned a bowl bid in 2014 after missing out in 2013. Tennessee gave its most complete performance of the Butch Jones era in the TaxSlayer Bowl, rolling to a 35-7 halftime lead against a good Iowa team and coasting to an impressive victory.

These are tangible signs of progress that have Vol fans excited about 2015.

It seems that Vol coaches are excited, too. They see the tangible evidence of progress but also recognize the less obvious indications that Big Orange football is a whole lot healthier now than it was one year ago.

“Sometimes the progress we’ve made isn’t apparent to the naked eye,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian recently told InsideTennessee. “Then you look at the accumulation of what we’ve been able to accomplish with our body of work, our tempo, our production.”

Tennessee piled up 461 total yards, 27 first downs and 45 points in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Even if you discount those numbers, however, the Vols’ 12-game regular-season stats for 2014 show significant improvement from their 12-game stats for 2013.

“Our offense scored 66 more points this year than it did last year,” Bajakian said. “We were able to run 100 more plays this year than we did last year. We earned 26 more first downs. We threw nine more touchdowns and four less interceptions. Our red-zone percentage improved 15 percent over last year.”

Impressed? Wait. Bajakian wasn’t finished yet.

“All that being said, we were able to accomplish that while starting seven freshmen who accounted for 44 starts,” the Vol aide added. “That’s more than twice as many as any other offense in the conference.”

Indeed. Freshman Jashon Robertson started all 12 regular-season games at right guard. Ethan Wolf started 10 times at tight end and fellow freshman Daniel Helm twice. Jalen Hurd started the final eight games at running back. Josh Malone started six games at wide receiver and fellow freshman Vic Wharton one. Coleman Thomas started five times at right tackle.

Even relying so heavily on youth, Tennessee improved its points total from 23.8 per game in 2013 to 27.6 in 2014 and its yards total from 353 per game to 363. The Big Orange also bumped its third-down conversion rate from 36 percent last season to 39 this season. Passing yardage zoomed from 164.9 per game in 2013 to 228.0 in 2014.

“The progress is there,” Bajakian said. “It’s evident. When you look closely, you can tell that this offense is making progress. Now it’s just a matter of taking the next step – winning some of those close games that we could have, and should have, won.”

Asked by IT what he found most impressive in terms of offensive progress from 2013 to 2014, head coach Butch Jones replied without hesitation:

“A number of things,” he said. “If you look at our plays per game, they’re up. For the most part we’ve taken care of the football. We’ve been set back with injuries all season, yet this team continued to persevere and battle through adversity. I think we established some playmakers that we’ll have for a couple of years. The overall continuity of the offense – the winning football, the small details, our style of play, taking care of the ball – is better. Points are up, red zone (efficiency) is up. All of those things have been great to see.”

Jones believes progress from 2013 to 2014 was just as evident on the defensive side of the ball.

“I think it starts upfront – the ability to generate a pass rush,” he told IT.

Indeed. The 2014 Vols recorded 35 sacks in 12 regular-season games, nearly doubling their 2013 total of 18.

“Definitely, our pass rush was the biggest improvement this season,” defensive end Corey Vereen said. “We really improved our sack production and our overall strain (effort) on the D-line.”

Thanks in part to the improved pass rush, Tennessee opponents completed just 53.8 percent of their passes in 2014, down from 56.5 percent in 2013. Opponents’ passing yards plummeted from 211.1 per game in 2013 to 197.8 in 2014.

In addition to the improved sack total, the 2014 Vols recorded a whopping 88 tackles for loss during the regular season. This represents a 35-percent increase from the 2013 total of just 65 TFL. That’s the way Butch Jones wants Tennessee playing defense – flying around and forcing the action.

“I think we improved our overall style of play,” the head man said. “Probably the most significant improvement has been in our third-down productivity in getting off the field.”

The stats underscore that. The 2014 Vols limited opponents to a 35 percent third-down conversion rate, a dramatic improvement from the 2013 average of 43 percent.

Here are some more stats that illustrate the progress Tennessee made defensively from 2013 to 2014: Opponents averaged 359.9 yards per game this season, nearly 60 yards less than last season’s yield of 418.4 yards per game. Vol foes scored 23.9 points per game in 2014, nearly a touchdown less than last year’s average of 29.0. Moreover, Tennessee allowed just 50 scrimmage plays of 20 yards or more in 2014, down from 65 in 2013.

“For the most part,” Jones said, “we’ve tackled fairly well.”

Vereen thinks the defensive improvement from last season to this season is easily explained. The Vols understood the defense and their roles in it much better in 2014 than they did in 2013.

“It was a lot simpler this year,” he said. “The first year you’re always trying to learn things. The second year you’re just going out there and playing.”

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