Out of all the analytical data to comb through during a college football season, Butch Jones puts one statistical category on a pedestal: first down efficiency. The Vols have a .735 OFD, a statistic that determines the percentage of the amount of drives that result in at least one first down or a touchdown. That has translated to making Tennessee No. 2 in the SEC in third down conversions at 45.83 percent.
"First down efficiency for us is everything, and it really puts you on schedule to have a manageable third down situation, and our goal is four yards," Jones said. "When we've been successful we've had big plays, and also been ahead in that first down efficiency. We want to be about 65 percent. That's our goal."
When the Vols offense sputters, it's usually because they struggle on first down. Jones' team ranks No. 55 in total first downs, with 199 on the season. Tennessee has taken a balanced approach to first down, rushing 99 times to 92 passes.
"When we've struggled is, obviously, not being there," Jones said. "I think sometimes opponents try to take things away from you. I think, again, a lot goes into it. Sometimes it's one out of 11. It may be 10 individuals doing their job and the eleventh, we don't quite win that battle, and that happens. That's what makes football the greatest team sport."
Pushing The Half
Holding on to a 17-3 lead against South Carolina with 1:03 to play in the first half, Tennessee got the ball at its own 34 yard line and made an attempt to score again. The first play from scrimmage was a poor one, though, as quarterback Josh Dobbs fumbled before offensive tackle Chance Hall quickly recovered to avoid disaster.
Jones is sometimes hesitant to put the pedal to the floor at the end of the half, saying it usually relies on how he feels the game is going.
"It's based on, really, the flavor of the game. I mean that in terms of strategically or structurally, what's the defense giving you," Jones said. "I think some of it is the defense, it's the personnel, it's the field position, it's how many timeouts the opposing team has. There's so much that goes into that decision-making process."
Jones helps make those kinds of decisions by watching other games and coaching them by proxy in his mind to get a feel for the different types of scenarios that may take place during his team's games. For the third-year Tennessee coach, it's a balance between wanting to be aggressive and not wanting to be too greedy.
"When you're watching games and your team's not playing, you still kind of coach the game. Now it's your time to kind of second guess and say, 'Ok, I would do this,'" Jones said. "There were a couple of games that were lost because sometimes I think you can be greedy in the first half and you turn the football over and you create a short field for your opponent, and they go in. You try to look at all those scenarios that go into it."
Freshman defensive lineman Kyle Phillips has been ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury. Phillips played in six games this season, recording eight total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
"He'll have shoulder surgery," Jones said. "He was starting to play very, very well, but we need to get that corrected so we can move forward and get him back, because he's got a chance to be a special player. I love everything about Kyle."
Offensive tackle Brett Kendrick practiced Tuesday while rehabbing from an elbow injury that has limited him since early October.
"Brett is doing everything in his power to get back. We appreciate his efforts, and we'll know a little bit more (later)," Jones said. "He did do some things in practice, which was great to see."
Offensive guard Jashon Robertson has been ruled "doubtful" for the game with an ankle injury that has hampered him all season. Freshman wide receiver Preston Williams' status (hamstring injury) isn't clear at the moment, with Jones saying he'll know more later on in the week. Sophomore wide receiver Marquez North is "basically day-to-day."
Curt Maggitt underwent an MRI this week on his hip, and the star hybrid linebacker/defensive end's status has not changed since he was ruled out indefinitely in September after suffering a bone chip against Oklahoma. Maggitt, who recorded seven tackles, three tackles for loss and two QB hurries in just two games before going down with the injury, is likely out of for at least the rest of the regular season.
"It's going to be based on how his body continues to heal over the next couple weeks," Jones said. "Anything would be speculation to say whether he'd be able to play in the bowl game or not. We'll have to wait and see, but he is getting better, he is progressing, but it's all premature to speculate whether he'd be back or not, but he's progressing well."
The preseason All-SEC selection started ten games last season and became one of the most feared pass rushers in the SEC. Maggitt tied for third in the SEC in sacks with 11 and tied for fifth in the league with 12 tackles for loss in 2014. The West Palm Beach, Florida, native is eligible for a medical redshirt this season, but a sixth year of eligibility would not be guaranteed.
"First of all, it's not a slam dunk," Jones said. "It's going to be really based on what he wants to do, and we would support him, but there's so much that goes into that decision. I know that Curt is a very driven young man. He's very goal-oriented. He's always thinking two steps ahead, whether it's his career in football or whether it's his career after football ... I've never been around a more mature, positive individual that has a plan for everything ... We'll cross that bridge as we go."