'Deep' trouble

Hitting a long pass is like hitting a slot-machine jackpot: You've got to have three items line up just right at the same time:

1. You need a line that can pass protect.

2. You need a quarterback that can throw long.

3. You need a receiver that can go long.

Tennessee has not hit any long passes this fall, which makes finding the end zone a more difficult process. Obviously, there's greater opportunity for a drive-killing mishap if you need 12 plays to go 70 yards than if you need just three plays to go 70 yards.

Tennessee's reluctance to even attempt to "go deep" has some observers speculating that the Vols lack item No. 2 above ... a quarterback who can throw long. They adamantly insist that Erik Ainge's injured pinky is the reason the Vols never try to stretch the field vertically. Head coach Phillip Fulmer just as adamantly insists that is not the case.

"His finger's not a problem," Fulmer said. "I don't believe that at all."

Ainge agrees, noting: "It might not spin real pretty but I can throw the ball as accurately as I could (before the injury)."

If the painful pinky is not the problem, then maybe the trouble is item No. 3 ... the lack of a receiver that can go long. Fulmer concedes this point to a certain extent.

"Kenny O'Neal would be the guy (deep threat) we're talking about, and we're working like heck to get him more involved," the head man said. "It (progress) has been a little slower than he would like or we would like but I can't put all the pressure in the world on him."

Although O'Neal has the horsepower to go long, he apparently lacks the GPS navigation system needed to find his intended destination.

"In the big scheme of things, you've got to be in the right place," Fulmer said. "You can't hang the quarterback by not being in the right place. That's still where we are in terms of getting him on the field consistently."

One thing's for certain: Tennessee's refusal to throw deep cannot be blamed on a lack of protection from the line. Ainge, who is far from nimble, has been sacked just twice through three games.

"I still believe we have the best drop-back protection package and drop-back package in college football," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "We can find a way to get it (long ball) done, particularly if we protect like we did at Florida, which was outstanding."

Since the line has the ability to protect and Ainge has the ability to throw the deep ball, finding a receiver with the ability to go long seems to be the only obstacle in Tennessee's development of a vertical passing game. Then again, maybe not. Fulmer says you also need the right look from an opposing defense.

"People have played us fairly soft," he said. "We've gotten a lot of crossing routes, outs and that kind of thing. People are working not to give up the big play."

One way to change the way defenses play Tennessee would be to run the ball effectively. This would force the safeties to commit to stopping the run, instead of laying back to cover the pass.

"If you can run the football well, obviously, it's going to be easier to throw the football," Ainge said. "The safeties and corners start peeking in at the run, and that's when you start getting big plays down the field.

"We don't have to be able to run for 150 or 200 yards a game to be able to throw the football well and score a lot of points. We just need to run the ball enough to keep people honest. Obviously, we need to run the ball better than we did last week (21 rushes for 37 yards vs. Florida)."

Until Tennessee makes its foes respect the ground game, opposing defenses will continue to overplay the deep pass.

"One of the reasons we're not stretching the field a lot right now is that teams are bailing at corner and they're playing deep safeties," Ainge said. "They're going to try to make us go the whole field, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to take a lot of shots just to take shots. You take shots when the defense is doing something."

Still, it might help to throw deep occasionally ... just to see how the defense reacts. The safety might fall down or get flagged for pass interference. Heck, even if it falls incomplete, an occasional deep ball can help, can't it?

"It can ... you definitely can do that," Ainge conceded. "Just throwing the ball down the field just to be throwing it down the field can be good, based on the situation in the game. If it's 28-7 (in the opponent's favor), you can't afford first and second downs launching it deep and facing third-and-10. It wouldn't make too much sense as a play-caller to do that."

One of Tennessee's receivers believes the Vols have all of the elements to start hitting a few bombs. They simply need to establish a respectable ground game first.

"Right now the backers are playing deep, and so are the safeties because we're struggling in the run game," Josh Briscoe said. "When we can get respect from the linebackers – get them to step up in the box and step up to the line of scrimmage on play-action – that's when those plays will be open."


Inside Tennessee Top Stories