One of the biggest differences in the Tennessee Volunteer offense from 2013 to 2014 is the use of the tight end position in the passing game. In 2013, the Vols tight ends combined for 15 catches and 98 yards. In 2014, the Vols tight ends have combined for 32 catches and 337 yards through 10 games.
As a group, Tennessee’s tight ends probably had their best game of the season against Kentucky. Ethan Wolf, Daniel Helm, and Alex Ellis all made plays in the passing game, and also added some key blocks, in the Vols 50-16 win.Head coach Butch Jones said after the game, “We wanted to get back to using the tight end and we’ve been using a tight end by committee and all those individuals complement each other. I thought they did a good job in the run game and then obviously in the receiving game as well.” So let’s look at how these three players made an impact on the game.
On their very first offensive snap, Tennessee lined up in a double wing formation and ran Y Cross. Ellis slipped to the flat and Helm ran the crossing route while quarterback Josh Dobbs faked a handoff to running back Jalen Hurd. Kentucky was expecting the run, and all of the linebackers came down on the fake. The Wildcats were in cover three, so these linebackers were supposed to be covering Helm. This allowed Helm to come wide open behind the linebackers. The free safety came down to cover him, but arrived too late. Dobbs could not throw the ball immediately, as he had a defender in his face. Dobbs side stepped Kentucky’s free rusher, and he delivered the ball to Helm for a 10 yard gain. In the second quarter, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian called for another playaction pass designed to get the ball to the tight end. This time the Vols faked a jet sweep along with an inside zone and ran a post/wheel concept. Kentucky was once again in cover three. The post route from flanker Marquez North cleared out the corner back. Both the outside linebacker and strong safety had their eyes in the backfield as they keyed the run. This enabled Wolf to slip up the sideline unguarded. Both defenders in zone coverage had their eyes on Pearson in the flat. Dobbs stepped out of the pocket and fired the ball to Wolf for a big 25 yard gain.These playaction passes put a lot of stress on a defense that is already worried about the Vols running game. With a running quarterback like Dobbs, and a back in Hurd who is emerging as one of the better freshmen in college football, the Vols running game has taken off over the past two weeks. Y Cross and the Post/Wheel are both great playaction concepts that attack defenses who are keying on the run.
Another way to attack these defenses is with packaged run/pass plays.
In the second half, Tennessee pulled out a play they had some success with early in the season, but had not run recently: the inside zone packaged with the tight end pop pass. Here, Dobbs had four options and could read up to three defenders. He could throw the pop pass, handoff, keep the ball himself, or throw the bubble screen. Here the middle linebacker stepped down to defend the inside zone, so this was an easy read for Dobbs. Dobbs completed the ball to a wide open Wolf for a 14 yard gain. On the following season, Tennessee went back to the inside zone with the pop pass. This time, they ran it from a two tight end set; this was the first time they Vols used a pop pass from this formation all season. Helm came across the formation to make a slice block, while Ellis ran down the seam. The middle linebacker came down to stop the zone once again, so Dobbs pulled the ball to throw to Ellis. Ellis was able to use his body to shield himself from the strong safety to make the catch and then ran for a gain of 17 yards.While they were effective in the receiving game, the tight ends also made plays in the running game as blockers.
At the end of the first quarter, the Vols ran a counter play for Hurd. Split end Josh Malone motioned across the formation presnap to create the illusion of a jet sweep. This caused the defense to overreact.Hurd ran through the hole and Wolf pulled through as his lead blocker.Wolf was able to absolutely control his man and clear out the hole for Hurd to gain 9.Later in the second quarter, Wolf threw a key block on a Dobbs touchdown run. This play was a quarterback counter read. Dobbs could’ve kept it on the counter, or handed to Hurd if the middle linebacker took away the counter.Here, the linebacker ran to Hurd, so Dobbs kept it. Wolf pulled through and blasted the weakside linebacker, allowing Dobbs to get to the edge and go in for the score.Wolf was not the only player to make key blocks. Ellis has been seeing more and more playing time recently, largely because of his blocking. On a play early in the game, the Vols ran a jet sweep to Von Pearson and he scored a touchdown. Ellis was lined up as a wing tight end to the left.
The outside linebacker started outside Ellis, but the tight end was able to position his body outside the linebacker to keep him from getting to Pearson. Ellis didn’t stop there, as he completely drove the defender back into the other linemen. Even when Pearson was far away, Ellis fought to finish his dominating block.Tennessee’s offense has improved for many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is the play by the tight ends. Wolf, Ellis, and Helm have all made key plays this season. The Vols offense runs so much better when the tight end is playing well because the position is so critical in both the run and pass game. This performance versus the Wildcats is just another positive sign for the Vols offense.