Tennessee showed an approach Thursday night in a thrilling come-from-behind win over Appalachian State that hasn’t been seen much before under coach Butch Jones.
In Jones’ first 3 years as the leader of the Volunteers, fans were accustomed to seeing wide receivers shuffled in and out of formation. That took a dramatic turn in the 2016 opener and when Josh Malone raced all alone into the checkerboards for a game tying 67-yard touchdown Volunteer fans everywhere approved of that change.
The topic of the wide receiver rotation has been a polarizing one and assistant coach Zach Azzanni has certainly received his share of attention regarding the subject. The pace that the Tennessee offense has played at has led many to adopt the thinking that it simply was a necessity to keep players fresh.
Last season, Tennessee averaged 76 offensive plays a game while playing a core group of six or seven receivers. After a fast-pace first drive Thursday, the tempo slowed and eventually a total of 72 offensive plays were recorded. The IT staff recorded the individual plays for each wide receiver against Appalachian State and the results proved to be an extreme change from years past. Only five wide receivers were used.
Malone was a workhorse, playing every single offensive play from scrimmage. Preston Williams played 32 of the total 36 first-half plays while playing less in the second half partly due to an injury midway thru the fourth quarter. Williams finished with 45 reps. Josh Smith registered 56 plays while Jauan Jennings played much more in the second half than the first with a total 26 plays. Tyler Byrd was the lone freshman to see action and got just six reps.
Newcomers Marquez Callaway, Jeff George, Brandon Johnson and LaTrell Williams didn’t see the field.
Is this a sign of more things to come? Perhaps not.
“Right now we really only have five — maybe six — ready to play in a game,” Azzanni said the week leading up to the game.
Azzanni went on to say that while his group was conditioned to play as many as 80-85 plays a game, that “the wear and tear of playing that much will start to wear you down by midseason.”
Tennessee’s all-time leading receiver, Joey Kent, shed some light on why the lack of a rotation in the 20-13 overtime win.
“Initially the offense was in hurry mode but after the first quarter Appalachian State controlled the time of possession, which obviously limited offensive snaps,” Kent said. “I think we want to play more guys but we were in a dog fight and we had to go with the guys with the best chance to win.”
Over the final three quarters, the Mountaineers carried the time of possession battle, owning the football for 26:02 compared to 18:58 for Tennessee. The Vols had the ball for 6 more seconds than their visitors in the first quarter.
Everyone will remember the 67-yard game-changing play by Malone and but only two plays before he’d caught his first pass of the game with a drive-extending 14-yard grab on third-and-long.
On the very next play Vol fans everywhere proclaimed this new approach as brilliant. Whether this approach is here to stay, only time will tell.