After falling 28-27 to the Florida Gators, there are quite a few Tennessee Volunteer fans concerned about Butch Jones and the coaching staff. The Vols loss came after Tennessee gave up a 13 point lead in the fourth quarter, the second time in three games that Tennessee has led by 13 or more in the fourth and blown their lead. So what’s going on? Are the coaches really to blame? This post aims to examine what went wrong and how Coach Jones can fix it.
For the sake of length, I split this post into two pieces. The page you are on now will look at the offensive playcalling and what offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is doing. The second part looks at some of Jones’ overall game management decisions (link here).
Right now, Tennessee’s running game is far ahead of the passing game and has been since Josh Dobbs took over as the quarterback. When Tennessee played Alabama last season, Jones and company made some subtle changes to the offensive system, adding more option runs to take advantage of Dobbs’ athletic skill Set. This included designed quarterback runs like the counter read and the inverted veer. Power football was the game plan. Feed Dobbs and Hurd, and throw quick hitters or play action.
This was good for one big reason. Dobbs is a dynamic runner and adding more variety to the run schemes allowed Jones to find more ways to get him the ball. Running lanes were now opened for Hurd because defenses had to worry about Dobbs. The offense was dynamic and tough to stop down the stretch in 2014 because the run game was versatile and Tennessee showed an ability to take advantage of defenses who sold out on the run by throwing the ball.
In 2015, things have changed. The offensive line is playing better and the running back position is much improved. But through three games, Tennessee had been very conservative with Dobbs. The Vols called much fewer designed quarterback runs in order to keep Dobbs healthy. Defenses were able to start keying on Hurd again. This slowed down the Vols running attack. Dobbs’ running ability was what opened up the Vols offense last season, and early in the season Tennessee practically abandoned that.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord had seen enough and came out against Florida with the goal of getting the ball to Dobbs. The athletic quarterback ran for 136 yards (despite losing 16 on sacks) and was the key player for the Vols. DeBord used Dobbs in every way possible, including on inside power runs and sweep plays.
This opened up room for Hurd, who rushed for 102 yards on his own. Despite the fact that Florida defenders got in the backfield way too easily, Hurd had a very good day. Fortunately for the Vols, Hurd is such a strong, powerful back that he was able to make plays even when the defense was in position. Hurd ended the game only averaging 3.6 yards per carry, which isn’t very good. But anyone who watched the game would have to walk away very impressed with his performance. Most of his yards came after contact and he was often seen dragging Florida players downfield before going down. Yards after contact is not an officially recorded stat, but I feel confident in saying Hurd earned most of the yards by running through defenders.
However, not even the best running back in the world can survive defenders in the backfield for too long. Hurd, as well as Dobbs, was many times tackled for a loss or for a very short gain.
So why was Hurd met in the backfield so much? The one-dimensional gameplan that the Vols utilized created problems for Hurd. Many times, Hurd was met in the backfield by Florida run defenders. This can be sometimes pinned on the offensive line, but often it was just because Florida was expecting the run. Tennessee made very little effort to pass the ball downfield, and Florida, as a result, did not respect the pass.
Before the final drive of the game, Tennessee only called 13 pass plays (not including screens). Florida had no reason to fear the Vols pass attack.
Most of the time, the Vols just tried to throw the ball quick and towards the sideline. Kamara in the flat was a favorite target of Dobbs.
Only twice did Tennessee ever call for playaction. Twice! They ran the ball 51 times and only saw fit to call for 2 playaction passes. One playaction pass was just a little bootleg into the flat, designed to get the tight end open on third and short. When no one was open, Dobbs scrambled for a first down.
The other was almost a thing of beauty. Dobbs faked a handoff to Hurd on an inside zone look before pump faking a bubble screen. This had a profound effect on the defense because the Vols run an inside zone packaged with the bubble screen so often. The flat defender jumped the bubble, and Josh Smith came wide open down the sideline. Unfortunately, Dobbs fired high and inaccurate, and Smith was unable to come down with a diving catch.
What confuses me is why was this the only time all game Tennessee called a playaction pass with the purpose of attacking Florida downfield? The perfect constraint to a defense that is overaggressive in attacking the run is playaction passes.
This play, from a schematic standpoint was very successful; Smith ended up wide open. Dobbs just didn’t execute. Give him a few more chances and he’ll hit more of those wide open receivers than he’ll miss, for sure. It would also open up the run because Florida would have to respect the pass.
Tennessee literally made no effort at all to attack downfield, and Florida was able to sell out on the run.
Otherwise, the Vols passing game was non-existent. Only one pass was completed downfield to a receiver, and that was this catch by Smith on the snag concept we covered a few weeks ago.
Snag would’ve been an effective concept versus Florida’s zone coverage, but Tennessee never really went back to it in the open field. The only other time Tennessee went to snag was on the goal line when they were trying to take advantage of press man coverage. Alex Ellis almost got into the end zone, but the Vols ended up scoring on the next play after Ellis got the ball to the one yard line.
Florida played a lot of zone coverage (Cover 3) in the middle of the field. However, they tended to go to man on the goal line, as we saw on the last clip. Early in the fourth quarter, the Gators showed straight man from the 10 yard line, so DeBord called a play for Preston Williams to be targeted in the corner of the end zone. Williams fell down on the play, but this was a good call to give one of Tennessee’s best jump ball receivers a chance to make a play. It didn’t work, but I like the call by DeBord. Keep doing that on the goal line, and they’ll end up in the end zone.
Another really good call from DeBord came early in the game. The Vols tried to pass downfield twice on third and long but Florida knew the Vols would have to pass in that situation and blitzed. Dobbs didn’t have enough time and couldn’t find anyone open and was sacked.
DeBord made a very good adjustment to the Gators’ blitzing habits on third and long. The playcall was for Dobbs to roll out to the left. This gave him more time to find an open receiver. Dobbs’ passes was right on the money, but Von Pearson dropped an easy pass over the middle.
This was a great adjustment by DeBord to attack Florida’s blitz. Unfortunately, just like on the lob to Williams, the players couldn’t execute.
So to summarize, these are the issues I see. DeBord made some very good playcalls and adjustments, but he has to be willing to be more aggressive. The playaction pass was awesome, but why only call it once? Why not attack the Gators’ run defense with more playaction?
In general, Tennessee had receivers open when they tried to pass (except for on third and long when Florida was expecting the pass.) Dobbs only missed 7 times, and on most of those plays there was a receiver open who either couldn’t get to the ball or dropped the pass. Florida’s soft zone coverage had a lot of holes in it. The Vols could’ve thrown a lot more and probably had a lot of success. It certainly would’ve helped open up the run game.
Next, the players simply have to execute better. The one time Dobbs had a wide open receiver deep, he misfired. When Dobbs had an open receiver on third down, the pass was dropped. When they had a favorable matchup on the goal line, the receiver fell down. Ultimately, no matter what plays the coaches call, the players must be able to execute.
This concludes part one of this post. If you’ve not already, please go take a look at part two (link here), which examines Jones and some of his game management decisions.