Tennessee may be coming off its bye week, but the Volunteers did more than just rest as they prepare to face No. 8-ranked Alabama on Saturday.
Fine-tuning fundamentals is key before heading south to Tuscaloosa. Tennessee’s 38-31 win over then-No. 19 Georgia highlighted areas of needed offensive improvement, and intensions are to further enhance on those improvements in order to combat Alabama’s defense, which ranks No. 14 nationally in scoring.
Tennessee’s offense showed better execution against Georgia, racking up 519 yards. Junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more. He passed for a career-high 312 yards and rushed for 118 yards.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord commented on Dobbs’ running ability and explained that they continuously look for ways to take advantage of that skill. The signal-caller also made strides identifying blitzes pre-snap.
“We’ve been able to run the football,” DeBord said. “What we’re now starting to own is the blitz. We picked up the blitz very well in that last game, and we only had one sack. I think we are really starting to own the passing game now, so we have to continue doing that.”
Tennessee ranks second in the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards per game (222.0), led by sophomore Jalen Hurd’s 572 yards on 126 carries. Dobbs has 73 rushes for 368 yards and redshirt sophomore Alvin Kamara totals 255 yards on just 45 attempts.
Alabama’s rush defense is the SEC’s best and ranks No. 3 in the country, allowing a mere 70.86 yards per game and just three rushing TDs.
Something has to give.
The Crimson Tide’s stout front seven may force the Big Orange to put the ball in the air.
Injuries and player dismissals affect Tennessee’s wide receiver corps. The group no longer has senior Alton Howard to lean on and junior Marquez North has only four receptions in four games.
Nonetheless, Tennessee’s passing attack showed signs against Georgia with Dobbs reaching his career high. Dobbs relies on tight end Ethan Wolf to help the aerial attack go. The 6-foot-6, 245-pounder is the SEC's fourth-leading receiving tight end with 15 catches for 213 yards and two scores.
“I felt like we were continuing to get better in practice and I felt like our passing game was going to execute very well in that last game — and it did,” DeBord said of the receivers. “Again, we just have to continue to improve all facets of the game.”
The development of these young receivers is not an overnight process. DeBord said he has observed a gradual increase of confidence in them.
“These are younger guys,” the first-year Vols coordinator said. “Josh Malone had a little bit of experience last year, but Preston Williams had none. He had no training camp. You have guys that are having to execute and do everything correctly, and it just takes time.
“I think our passing game picked up in this ballgame. We’ve got to continue to work on both phases and get better as we go through these next six games.”
Alabama safety Eddie Jackson leads the SEC in interceptions (5). The Crimson Tide returned three interceptions for touchdowns in the 41-23 win over Texas A&M in College Station on Saturday.
Malone is fresh off one of his more productive games for the Orange & White as the Gallatin native reeled in five catches for 60 yards, including a pivotal 23-yard reception on a third-and-10 on his team's third scoring drive.
Wolf, who had 56 receiving yards against Georgia, said there were no major schematic changes before the Georgia game — they just found their offensive identity and produced.
“It was just execution,” Wolf said. “We found a little rhythm there, and we are looking forward to building on that. I don’t think there was a whole lot different.”
He explained that the improved downfield passing game creates an opportunity to make more momentum plays, and they intend to make more “splash” plays over these next six weeks.
It could be tough sledding in Tuscaloosa as the Vols attempt to snap their eight-game losing streak versus the Tide.
“There's a number of individuals on both sides of the ball (at Alabama),” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, “that will have long and productive years in the National Football League. That's a byproduct of recruiting and development and standing the test of time over a long period of time.”