Tennessee overcame its second straight double-digit deficit to win going away 45-24 over Virginia Tech in Bristol on Saturday night in the world’s largest football game.
It was another contest where Volunteer fans left scratching their heads after a slow start. The offensive line has received a great deal of criticism from coaches and fans alike over the start of the 2016 season. The expectations for that position group were high with all but one key piece, Drew Richmond, having a great deal of experience.
Has the criticism directed toward the offensive line been warranted? On the surface it appears that with Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs being constantly flushed out of the pocket and running back Jalen Hurd rarely being allowed to get up to full speed without multiple defenders at his feet that the criticism is plenty fair. However, after taking a closer look at the pre-snap routine, it appears that the defensive line has gotten a very comfortable head start on virtually every snap of the Appalachian State game and for the first quarter of the Battle at Bristol.
In this season's first 98 plays with Dobbs in the shotgun, the pre-play routine saw the ball snapped from center after the first clap an astounding 86 times. The other twelve plays were all snapped on the second clap in which Dobbs didn’t appear to put much emphasis on selling the first clap. This is the kind of pattern defensive coaching staffs dream of discovering that will allow their defensive lineman or players they are to sending on a blitz to get an advantage. Vols blockers have been beaten by smaller, quicker rushers on several occasions.
After five quarters and one overtime period, the Vols finally made an adjustment that slowed down foes and Tennessee proceeded to take complete control of the game and win going away.
"We had to change some things, we adjusted, and in the second quarter we took off," second-year Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord told InsideTennessee. "A lot of it was a result of what Virginia Tech was doing and we thought it would help us and it did."
Throughout Dobbs' tenure it has been extremely rare to see any kind of audible — or even the appearance of one. All that changed against the Hokies. Dobbs many times clapped once, twice, sometimes more, and then walked to the line of scrimmage and looked to the sidelines for direction. This has been labeled by many offensive coordinators as a “check-with-me” approach.
“I thought we did a much better job with controlling and managing our tempos starting with Josh at the line of scrimmage and also changing some things up," Tennessee coach Butch Jones told IT. "We did a number of things differently (from the second quarter-on)."
The negative of such an adjustment is that Tennessee isn’t able to play as fast. It should be without saying that using a “check-with-me” approach certainly slows down the rate of plays for an offense. Once a multiple-play drive gets moving the predictability of the pre-snap routine isn’t nearly the advantage for the defense as it is when defenders are rested and fresh.
The importance of moving the chains is imperative to playing with a predictable fast-pace cadence. Considering the 98 plays before any adjustment in the second quarter on Saturday night was made, the offense had 14 drives. Five of those, including the first three against the Hokies, were three-and-outs. Five more drives were six plays or fewer. In those 10 drives, clearly the rested defense was at an advantage with a predicable pre-snap routine.
As the competition level increases for the Vols, it is apparent that the Tennessee offensive line isn’t equipped to play at a high level when the defense is rested and allowed to get a head start when it understands Dobbs' cadence. Mixing up when centers Coleman Thomas or Dylan Wiesman give Dobbs the football in the coming weeks is a detail the Vols cannot afford to overlook.