Tennessee’s offense was very good in 2015. The Vols were third in the SEC with an average of 35.2 points per game, while their 223.69 rushing yards per game was second only to LSU. The total rushing yards (2,908) were the second best total in school history, coming in right behind the 1951 National Champion squad. Tennessee’s 457 total points on the season also is the second-best mark in school history, barely finishing behind the 471 points scored by the Vols in 1993.
But despite the great performance by the Vols in 2015, it is not far-fetched to wonder if the Vols’ offense could be even better in 2016.
Tennessee returns almost everyone from last season. Only two starters (left tackle Kyler Kerbyson and slot receiver Von Pearson) depart. Most of the backups return as well. Out of players in the two deep, the only other losses are receiver Johnathon Johnson, tight end Alex Ellis, and center Mack Crowder.
Among the returners are starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs, starting running back Jalen Hurd, and do-it-all backup running back Alvin Kamara. These three form a dynamic trio, that perhaps the best backfield in the nation. Pro Football Focus ranked the Vols’ backfield as the eighth best returning unit in the country.
The Vols three-headed monster of Hurd, Kamara, and Dobbs is a force to be reckoned with. It’s been a long time since the Vols have had one back who was this dynamic in the running game, much less three. Tennessee’s rushing attack was one to be feared in 2015 behind the versatility of these three players. With four of five starting offensive linemen returning to lead the way, the Vols’ rushing attack could be even better in 2016.
The Tennessee backfield is headlined by Jalen Hurd. Hurd is the Vols’ lead running back. The junior enters his third year as a starter in Knoxville, and is considered one of the top runners in the country. Last season, Hurd ran for 1,288 yards, an average of 99.1 yards per game. With those numbers, Hurd became the first sophomore in school history to break the thousand yard mark.
Hurd enters the 2016 season with an outstanding chance to set Tennessee’s all-time record for career rushing yards. Currently, he only needs 891 yards to match Travis Henry’s school record of 3,078 career rushing yards.
When you look at Hurd, the first thing that stands out about him is his size. At 6’4” 240 lbs., you’re not going to find too many backs bigger than him in America. As you would imagine, this makes Hurd a load for defenders to take down.
With his size and strength, Hurd will simply run through any attempts at an arm tackle. Defenders must also be careful of coming in too high, or else they will simply bounce off the massive running back.
With this in mind, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord uses Hurd as his primary ball carrier on power running plays. The Vols offense is built around the inside running game, particularly the inside zone and counter plays. Hurd is DeBord’s go-to option when he wants to pound away at the defense.
As good as he is as a power runner inside, Hurd may be even more dangerous on the edge. This isn’t to be expected from a back of his size, but Hurd is not just a big, slow, lumbering runner. He has fantastic athleticism and speed, and can often beat defenders to the edge on sweep plays.
Hurd’s size makes him a dangerous runner once he gets into the open field. No defensive back wants to see a 240 pound man coming at him at full speed. Hurd has the advantage over undersized defenders in the open field, because they have to tackle him one-on-one in space, as opposed to working with teammates to gang tackle him. Hurd has the speed to get to the perimeter; once he gets there he is quick enough to elude defenders and strong enough to shrug off any weak arm tackles.
While you might not expect it from a back his size, Hurd is a very good receiver out of the backfield. As He has soft hands, and is very dangerous once he gets into space. Hurd finished sixth on the team last year in both receiving yards and receptions, despite not being on the field in many passing situations.
This next play may be the best exhibit of Hurd’s well-rounded skill set. He catches the ball on a screen pass, showcasing his receiving ability. Then, Hurd gets out of an impossible situation, eluding three defenders in the backfield. He then runs through the arm tackle of a fourth defender, jukes a fifth, and then uses his strength to plow over a sixth defender, falling forward for the first down. What a play.
Hurd is a special player, but what really makes the Vols backfield unique is the one-two punch they have with Alvin Kamara. The junior college transfer made an immediate impact in his first season in Knoxville, rushing for 698 yards and finishing second on the team in receiving, despite spending the entire year as the number two back behind Hurd.
Kamara was an explosive player for the Vols, averaging an outstanding 6.5 yards per carry. What really makes him special is his speed and elusiveness in the open field. If Hurd was the power back, built to hammer the ball inside, then Kamara was the speed back, built to run the ball around the edge.
Mike DeBord loves to use Kamara on sweep plays, allowing him to use his speed to get to the edge and outrun defenders down the sideline.
But Kamara brings more to the table than just speed. Once he gets in open space, he is very difficult to take down. Pro Football Focus loved Kamara in 2015, actually grading him higher than Hurd (albeit with a smaller sample size).
Kamara ranked among the nation’s elite when it comes to making defenders miss, averaging nearly four yards per carry after contact.
You can see why DeBord loves the sweep play for Kamara. After using his speed to get to the perimeter, Kamara was often able to use his quickness to make a defender miss in the open field.
Where Kamara is most underrated is as an inside runner. Considered the “small, fast back,” Kamara actually has very good size and strength, weighing in 215 pounds. While he certainly doesn’t possess the strength of Hurd, he is a tough runner who doesn’t often go down on first contact. If the Vols were ever without Hurd for a period of time, Kamara would certainly be able to carry the load as the lead ball carrier.
While DeBord likes to use Kamara on the edge, he has no problem using him as the ball carrier for power runs up the middle. Kamara is a tough runner who can hurt the defense in short yardage situations when called upon.
One of the things that impressed me most about Kamara last season was his vision as a runner. The Vols want their runners to have outstanding vision to read blockers and identify the running lane. The runner must then have the decisiveness to jab his foot in the ground, and hit the hole hard. There is no room for second guessing; the back must get downfield in a hurry. Kamara excelled in this scheme, and once he found his running lane, his speed and elusiveness took over.
While Kamara was outstanding as a runner, perhaps his biggest impact in 2015 came as a receiver out of the backfield. Lacking a big play receiver on the perimeter, DeBord often dialed up pass plays designed to get the ball in Kamara’s hands on critical third down.
With 34 catches, Kamara finished second on the team (and is actually the Vols’ leading returning receiver). His three touchdowns also tied for a team high.
The Vols’ running back has great hands and, as already seen, outstanding speed and quickness, making him a great receiver out of the backfield.
One of DeBord’s favorite things to do was use his outside receivers to run off the defensive backs, opening up space in the flat for Kamara. Often, DeBord would motion Kamara outside to a position in the slot, once again showcasing his versatility.
Joshua Dobbs is the leader of the offense at the quarterback spot. While somewhat inconsistent as a passer, Dobbs stars as a runner. He is a unique talent with the speed to hurt a defense on the perimeter, but the strength to power the ball up the middle.
Dobbs is a smart and creative player, and when the pocket breaks down, he is not afraid to take off and run, and can often burn a defense this way. However, his primary impact as a runner is on designed run plays. DeBord is willing to call the same power running plays for Dobbs as he does for Hurd and Kamara. This makes the Vol offense all the more dynamic. Not only does the defense have to fear Hurd or Kamara receiving a handoff, but they must fear Dobbs faking the handoff and keeping the ball himself.
One of DeBord’s favorite ways to get Dobbs moving downhill is the counter play. This inside run scheme is as close to pure, power football as you’re going to find. The point of the play is to establish double teams at the point of attack, pull a guard to kick out the play side end, and pull a fullback/tight end/H-Back as the lead blocker. The ball carrier will simply follow the path of his fullback right up the middle.
DeBord will often use Dobbs as the lead ball carrier on the counter play. He will often fake a handoff to either Hurd or Kamara on a sweep before plowing ahead behind his blockers. This serves to make defenders hesitate. They are forced to respect Hurd and Kamara, both equally as dangerous with the ball.
Dobbs is a force on these inside runs. He is very strong, and consistently runs through arm tackles. He also has great vision and has a great feel for finding the best running lane.
DeBord will also often go to option plays, letting Dobbs read the defense before deciding whether to give the ball up or keep it himself.
Once Dobbs breaks through the initial arm tackle, he has the speed to outrun the defense in the open field.
When it comes to making defenders miss, there are not many players better in college football. Check out what Pro Football Focus had to say about Dobbs’ elusiveness.
An average of 4.5 yards after contact is incredible. Dobbs’ ability to run through tackles is perhaps his best attribute, and it makes him one of the most dangerous ball carriers in the country.
While Dobbs is a threat as a power runner inside, he is equally effective on the edge. He is a long strider, and has the ability to outrun most defenders on the perimeter. DeBord will often call designed sweep plays for Dobbs, allowing him to use his speed to beat defenders outside.
No article about Dobbs’ rushing ability would be complete without the following play. Perhaps his most impressive effort of the season, Dobbs recovered a mishandled snap, outran the entire Northwestern defense to the edge, tiptoed down the sideline, then dove out in front of the pylon for the score. Definitely worthy of the SportsCenter #1 Play ranking that it received.
As a whole, it is easy to see why the Vols’ offense is so dangerous. Hurd, Kamara, and Dobbs form a dynamic backfield, capable of shredding any defense. Butch Jones and Mike DeBord are blessed to have three uniquely talented skill players, all of which can be used in a variety of ways.
These three players made the Vols’ into one of the best rushing teams in the country last year. With four/fifths of the starting offensive line returning, there is no reason why that success should not carry over into 2016.
Enjoy this article? Want to learn more about Tennessee’s offense? Be sure to check out my book, Fast and Furious: Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers’ Offense! The book takes an in-depth look at Coach Jones’ scheme, examining the how and the why behind all of the most important plays in the playbook. For any Vol fan, this is a must-read. With football season about to kickoff, now is the perfect time to check it out!
Fast and Furious: Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers’ Offense is currently available as a paperback and as an eBook on Amazon (link here).
It is also available (while supplies last) at Clinton Drug Store in Clinton, Tennessee.