Going Deep: A Long Look at UT's Offensive Woes

Tennessee's recent offensive struggles which followed on the heels of last season's offensive woes have Vol fans wondering what has gone wrong and asking how things can be set right?

Some think it's the failure of the front line to open holes consistently. Some believe the problems lie with the coaches and play calling. Others feel the Vols lack a big-play feature back who can spot openings and break tackles. Finally there are the theorists that hold to the notion UT's offensive system is outdated while it's tendencies are easily diagnosed.

About the only thing UT fans agree upon is that something is seriously wrong with the offense and the numbers support that consensus. During a five-year span from 1997 to 2001, the Vols averaged 31.9 points per game and never fell below 30.8 points during any of those seasons. Last year the Vols point production dropped to 22.8 per game and this year they are averaging 23.3. Tennessee trails every team in the SEC in rushing except Kentucky and has rushed for only 186 yards in the last three games (62 yards per contest).)The Vols have produced a paltry 9.5 points in four homes losses since 2002, while UT's opponents scored an average of 32.7 points in those road victories. Twice last season the Vols were held without a touchdown.

When a program has this type of drop off there normally isn't a simple explanation but rather a combination of contributing factors. For instance: the Vols O-line is better in terms of individual talent than the sum of its parts would indicate. The backs haven't proven as capable of producing as some their predecessors such as Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens. Play calling has lacked for creativity at times, but the truth of the matter is that if you're not able to run between the tackles you won't run anywhere with any consistency, and passing also becomes more problematical. Without a running threat, it's harder to neutralize the pass rush and ball control becomes nearly impossible.

It's unfair to make an appraisal of the job line coach Jimmy Ray Stevens is doing based on half a season of play, and if the offensive system is outdated why did it produce big numbers for nine seasons before flaming out?

Certainly, Tennessee's approach to advancing the ball is the same one employed by most major powers over the last two decades in college football. The Vols aim is to be balanced and in charge through its ability to control the line of scrimmage and wear down opposing defenses, or to strike quickly through the air. It's a combination of a power running game and a vertical passing attack that pounds the body of a defense before landing hay makers to the head. It forces opponents to commit defenders to stop the run while also guarding against the long pass, opening intermediate space for exploitation. It can be a very potent one-two punch, but it requires superior personnel and places a lot of responsibility on the quarterback to make reads and adjustments.

Last season the system broke down because of injuries in the offensive line, at quarterback and to the running backs. We also heard a lot about how the lack of quality receivers was circumventing Tennessee's aerial counterattack thus allowing defenses to overplay the run.

Tennessee has certainly improved its talent level at receiver this year, but remains at a tactical disadvantage because of its lack of experience and maturity. It's top two pass catchers — James Banks and Mark Jones — never caught a pass in a college game until this season; ditto for true freshmen Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. Tony Brown was UT's only receiver with at least 10 career receptions entering the season and the only Vol wideout who has had the luxury of learning his position from veteran teammates. Opponents are taking advantage of that experience gap by pressing UT's young receivers at the line of scrimmage. As Tennessee's novice pass catchers refine their technique and get physically stronger they will be able to defeat press coverage and opponents will be forced to give them more cushion.

The end result is that UT will then be able to attack the perimeter with timing routes, quick passes to the flats and tunnel screens. As it is, the Vols infrequently use the three and five-step drop because their receivers need more time to get into their routes. That creates other consequences in terms of pass protection, as the offensive line is being asked to hold their blocks longer against ever increasing numbers in the box.

Inexperience also contributes to miscommunication between the quarterback and receivers, as the Vols neophyte wideouts are expected to make sight adjustments at the line and alter their routes according to coverage. Even when they make the right reads and get off the line cleanly they may not be where Casey Clausen expects them to be, especially after he audibles to an alternate play.

Make no mistake, it's a complex system that takes time to learn and longer to become comfortable with. That's why such notable first-year players as Alvin Harper, Carl Pickens, Marcus Nash, Peerless Price and Donte Stallworth didn't have an immediate impact on The Hill.

The depth and potential of Tennessee's receiving corps is outstanding, particularly when you add freshman Robert Meachem and redshirt freshman Chris Hannon to the mix. But the Vols are currently paying a high price for not successfully recruiting more advanced pass-catching prospects that could make an early difference. Unable to ink proven wide receivers out of high school, the Vols opted to sign great athletes that could be developed into receivers. For example: Banks, Hannon and C.J. Fayton were all quarterbacks in high school, while Jones was a running back turned defensive back, turned wideout.

Tennessee's wideouts are on the fast track to success, but none have currently emerged that can consistently beat man-to-man coverage. Without a receiver demanding double coverage, opponents are free to load up the box and overwhelm Tennessee with sheer numbers. When the Vols spread the field with three wideouts, opponents can defend with four DBs and still have seven defenders against six blockers to stop the run. Throw in some stunts and blitzes and that numerical advantage is further amplified.

In light of this reality, it's not surprising that Tennessee's offense is unable to develop any rhythm or sustain time-consuming drives. That's also why UT has thrown so many deep passes this season, hoping to connect on big plays against defenses that are daring them go over the top. UT has had success with the fade route near the goal line because Clausen requires little time to release such a pass, but when he attempts deep passes from outside the opponent's 30 yard-line, he doesn't have the time needed to make an accurate throw.

He also lacks the means to attack the opponent's flanks because none of UT's tailbacks have proven to be good perimeter runners or reliable receivers out of the backfield. Little used sophomore Gerald Riggs, who has contended with injuries and academics since his arrival last fall, may prove to be the type of back the Vols need to get outside the tackles and into the open field, but that's still a matter of conjecture at this point. Clearly, Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis are more straight-line runners that haven't exhibited the vision or open field moves to regularly produce big plays. However, Tennessee's lack of physical maturity at wide receiver also enters the equation since the correlation between down field blocking and long runs is undeniable.

The Vols also need a receiving threat at tight end to take advantage of space vacated by blitzing linebackers. Jason Witten proved the importance of such a weapon in 2001 and 2002 when he flexed, went in motion or lined up in the slot, forcing defenses to cover with a linebacker or safety (sometimes both) which took them out of run support and opened more room inside.

Any fan that wonders what's wrong with Casey Clausen this year should look at game film from the 2001 season when he had two wide receivers — Stallworth and Kelley Washington — that could defeat man coverage and a big, fast, tight end who could get behind linebackers or post up smaller DBs for first down receptions. Tailback Travis Stephens could run inside or outside and was a big-play threat on screens. Consequently, defenses couldn't afford to attack between the tackles with impunity and Clausen had time to find the receiver in single coverage. Heck, sometimes he would even thrown into double coverage, having so much confidence in himself and his receivers.

Without the ability to attack a defense's flanks and lacking receivers that can defeat press coverage or equal the numbers by drawing double coverage, Tennessee's offense is often restricted to running dives between the tackles or throwing low-percentage deep passes. Consistency is a tall order when you consider the tailback has to gain seven yards just to get back to the line of scrimmage and the QB usually requires four seconds to get off a long pass from a seven-step drop. SEC teams with outstanding speed defenses have demonstrated how they can make the Vols one dimensional the last three weeks, and that blueprint is sure to be duplicated until Tennessee proves it can successfully counter the strategy.

The Vols options are few given the limitations of their offensive personnel. A mobile quarterback that could break containment and pose a constant running threat would force defenses to abandon many of their ultra aggressive schemes. That's one reason UT's offense was so effective under Tee Martin and why the Vols should seek a pocket passer with mobility for its future.

With Riggs finally emerging and adding depth to UT's tailback position, the Vols might want to give Jabari Davis a look at fullback. He would give them a big back who could hit holes quickly and pop big plays against stunting defenses much as Shawn Bryson once did for the Vols. It would also allow Tennessee to add quick traps and counter plays to their arsenal.

Davis hasn't proven himself as a lead blocker, but he was the only Vol who managed to flatten Georgia's David Pollack in Tennessee's embarrassing defeat to the Bulldogs and he deserves a chance to gain playing time. Troy Fleming has been inconsistent at fullback and Will Revill doesn't offer a running or receiving threat. If Davis gets reps at fullback this season, he could be ready to make a bigger contribution next season. The same can't be said of Fleming.

If Davis earns some reps at fullback, the Vols might get Derrick Tinsley involved in the tailback rotation. Tinsley was the Vols best receiver out of the backfield last season, catching 20 passes for 256 yards and five touchdowns. Compare that to Fleming (21 catches for 121 yards and no touchdowns), Houston (nine catches for 55 yards an no touchdowns) and Davis (four catches for 42 yards and no touchdowns). Tinsley, who had more yards individually than the rest of UT's backs had collectively and tied Witten for the team lead in TDs, would also add an outside running threat. Additionally, he would provide that change of pace that is currently missing in the tailback rotation while giving Houston and Riggs the number of carries needed to find their rhythm.

Sending its receivers in motion more often would prevent DBs from getting jammed at the line while allowing wideouts to get into patterns with some momentum. This would create more intermediate range passing opportunities while forcing defenses to make more adjustments. Running more combination routes out of the slot would create switches in the secondary and provide Clausen a chance to make quicker reads and throws. Forcing the defense to make adjustments is one of the most effective means of offsetting aggressive deployment. Tennessee has also had some success with the quick slants and it helps to keep the linebackers honest even if the pass isn't completed.

The Vols have made little use of the rolling pocket, draws, sprint draws, screens or throwbacks which are all effective answers to pass rushers drawing a bead on the quarterback. The idea is to shatter the defense's comfort zone by giving it more looks from different formations and off varying action. A moment of indecision can cause that critical separation needed to produce big plays.

It also puts the offense back on the attack and the defense back on its heels. For an offense that is struggling to find consistency and confidence, a change of mind set is more important than a change of systems.

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