Offense Passes Test

When Tennessee's offense is clicking on all cylinders it looks like one of its potent predecessors pushing an opponent around. When it's not it looks like an underpowered antique, an anachronism from another era, an ode to a time when the Los Angeles Raiders ruled the football world with a combination of power runs, vertical passes, draws, screens, traps and sweeps. Not to mention a great defense.

And those were the things Tennessee did well in an offensive scheme that was brought to The Hill from the west coast in the form of Walt Harris, who served as UT's offensive coordinator from 1983 to 1988. After he left to take the head coaching job at his alma mater (Pacific) his system remained in place under a series of offensive coordinators that included: Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe, Randy Sanders and Cutcliffe again in a revisal of a role he made popular in a highly productive run between 1993 through 1998.

After running the show in the national championship game victory over Florida State, he put together three standout seasons with four different starting signal callers and three different starting tailbacks. None of those QBs made in the NFL while Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning, who played six of the seven years Cut was O.C., were taken with the No. 3 and No. 1 picks of the NFL Draft.

The fact Tennessee's offensive success continued under separate signal-callers from different stratas and different O.C.s with diverse experience levels would suggest the problems that ensued the most recent golden years in Big Orange Country were elsewhere. In truth they were probably everywhere else i.e., offensive line, running backs, fullbacks, wide receivers and tight ends.

The type of system Tennessee runs puts a lot of emphasis on the QB making adjustments at the line and being able to exploit all the passing zones. However more than that even it depends on a preponderance of talent — a mobile offensive line, a war chest of swift wideouts, fullbacks that can block and catch the ball out of the backfield, tight ends that can move the yardsticks and tailbacks that can bust it inside or pop it outside.

It's actually the type of offense that is designed to press advantages as opposed to disguising disadvantages. It has been tweaked a lot over the years and now UT doesn't run nearly the number of traps, sweeps, screens and draws they once did. Most plays are now initiated from the shotgun with a lone back or empty backfield, although the Vols did enjoy success in two-back power sets against Arkansas State and Southern Miss.

In those games they had the type of balance the offense is engineered to achieve and eventually wore down both defenses. In those victories the Vols proved the offense can work as long as they can leverage a depth and personnel advantage. It didn't work as well against Cal and Florida for obvious reasons. How it works against teams like Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky depends on the Vols' ability to improve and the staff's capacity to adjust.

That means building depth in the line and integrating young talent into the receiving and running rotation. Additionally, it calls for a defense that can get more three-and-outs than three-and-overs (the goal-line).

Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Arkansas State game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Further analysis to follow.

OFFENSIVE LINE (88) Tennessee had problems running early in the game but eventually took control of the line of scrimmage and dominated in the fourth quarter. As a result the Vols had 523 yards including 188 rushing. Better still they gave Eric Ainge solid gold protection with no sacks or quarterback hurries. When you go an entire game against a decent defense and not allow as much as a touch it warrants high praise and a high grade.

QUARTERBACKS (85) A career high for Eric Ainge in both yardage (334) and touchdowns (four) as he distributed the ball to 10 different receivers. The senior went through his progressions, found his targets and deliver the ball on time as well as on the money. He connected on 27-of-39 passes despite several drops. His interception that was returned for a touchdown lowers the mark as does the fact the Vols' longest completion was only 26 yards. Jonathan Crompton played one series in which he handed the ball off twice and completed a one-yard pass. Given Ainge's history of injuries more effort could be made to get Crompton ready for game competition.

RUNNING BACKS (82) The Vols average of 5.1 yards per carry wasn't as high as Arkansas State's 5.8, but LaMarcus Coker averaged 6.8 yards on 15 carries for 101 yards and a TD. He caught two passes for 49 yards and another score. His long run of 27 yards was more than UT's longest gain through the air. Arian Foster was steady Eddie with 12 carries for 57 yards with a touchdown. Freshman Lennon Creer was held to 28 yards in nine attempts. Foster and Creer each had a fumble that was recovered by the Vols.

RECEIVERS (77) Big game by Lucas Taylor who seven catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Briscoe added six receptions for 65 yards, while H-Back Chris Brown caught four passes for 32 yards and a TD. Austin Rogers grabbed three passes for 37 yards but dropped a few as well. Briscoe was charged with a fumble that the Vols recovered. The lack of big plays remains a concern.

OVERALL (84) Other than a few mistakes and early running woes, the offense played a sound game against a weaker opponent. That's what keeps this score from being higher. However it's hard to argue with 48 points, 523 total yards and 30 first downs.

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