The Search for a Big Play Receiver

Last week we looked at Tennessee’s backfield and discussed why they have the potential to be one of the best position groups in the nation in 2016. But for all the positive with the Vols offense in 2015, there was a glaring problem that held the offense back: Tennessee lacked big plays, especially in the passing game.

In modern football, explosive plays have become one of the biggest factors in a team’s likelihood to win a game. Most coaches consider explosive plays to be running plays of 12+ yards and passing plays of 20+ yards.

Many defensive coordinators employ a “bend but don’t break” philosophy. The logic is simple. We’ll give up 5 yards here and there, so long as we don’t give up the big play. If we force the offense to nickel and dime it down the field, they’ll eventually screw up, and we’ll get the ball back.

At the college level, that is a very good strategy. The idea of a 20 play, 80 yard drive that demoralizes the defense is great in theory, but it isn’t the most practical. All it takes is one tackle for loss, one sack, or even one incomplete pass to put the offense behind in the down and distance. Now the offense is stuck in a second-and-thirteen or a third-and-nine, where the odds of converting and continuing the drive are unfavorable.

This is why explosive plays are so important. The odds are against the offense flawlessly executing a long scoring drive. All it takes is one mistake to destroy a drive. But if the offense can reduce the length of a drive with a big play, it greatly increases its chances of scoring.

Consider this statistic from Bill Connelly at Football Study Hall in his article about the five most important stats in college football.

“If you win the explosiveness battle (using PPP), you win 86 percent of the time.”

Wow. The team with the most explosive plays wins 86 percent of the time? I’ll take those odds any day.

When it came to the running game, the Vols actually were near the top of the country in explosive plays last season. The Vols were 15th in the country in rushing plays over 10 yards, and finished 22nd in rushing plays over 20 yards. The trio of Hurd, Kamara, and Dobbs were dynamic in the running game and gave the Vols many explosive plays.

The passing game was a different story, however. The Vols came in at 76th in the country in passing plays over 20 yards. When you look at really big passing plays (over 40 yards), the Vols ranked a dreadful 101st.

This, in my estimation, is the biggest thing holding the Vols’ offense back in 2016. Their offense was very good in 2015 but in order to take the next step in 2016, Butch Jones and Mike DeBord have to find a way to engineer some big plays in the passing game.

For this to happen, at least one of the Vols’ receivers needs to step up and become a big play threat. The Vols already have three big play threats in the backfield. The entire offensive line (minus left tackle Kyler Kerbyson) returns. Just one standout receiver on the perimeter could be all Jones and company need to have an all-time great offense.

As of now, no defense is concerned about the Vols beating them on the perimeter. No Vol receiver is feared to make a big play after catching a short pass, much less beating a defender over the top. That must change in 2016. Just the fear of a big play receiver on the outside could drastically effect the way opposing teams defend the Vols. Defensive coordinators would be less prone to load the box with run defenders, opening up more space for the Vols’ outstanding trio of backs.

Tennessee returns almost all of their receiving targets in 2016. Ethan Wolf is a solid tight end, while tight end Jason Croom’s return from injury gives Josh Dobbs one more reliable target. Josh Smith is poised for a big year after moving to the W (slot receiver) position. However, all three of these players are possession receivers, better known for their reliable hands than their ability to take the top off a defense.

The Vols also added some newcomers who have a chance to make an impact. Freshmen Tyler Byrd, Brandon Johnson, Latrell Williams, and Marquez Callaway all will contend for playing time.

But when I look at the Vols’ roster, I see two returning players that stand out above the rest as potential  “big play” threats: Josh Malone and Preston Williams.

Malone is an interesting study. The consensus 4 star receiver signed with the Vols in 2014. The Gallatin, Tennessee native was widely considered as one of the top two prospects in the state.

Despite making 18 starts and playing in all 26 games, many Vol fans consider Malone’s first two seasons to be a disappointment. He has rarely stood out and has not been a receiver that struck fear in a defense.

The former blue chip recruit has shown enough, however, to make the Vol faithful believe 2016 could be his breakout year.

Malone was part of the Vols’ most explosive play all season, making a 75 yard touchdown catch versus Kentucky. The 6’3” receiver beat man coverage down the sideline on a deep go route, and used outstanding concentration to make the catch.

Malone, perhaps more than any other receiver on the roster, flashed ability to make plays downfield. On this play against Alabama, Malone did an outstanding job of gaining inside leverage versus the cornerback with his route, then was able to snag a pass thrown behind him.

Malone clearly has the talent, but has been far too inconsistent through his first two seasons in Knoxville.  However, he has been one of the most impressive players in training camp for the Vols, according to many reports. One of his highlights came when he hauled in this pass in the back of the end zone, beating All-Conference corner Cam Sutton.

If Malone can carry his outstanding performance in practice over into the season, it would change the dynamic of the entire offense. If he has finally turned the corner and can be a consistent threat downfield in 2016, the Vols could be in store for a special season.

The other receiver that I believe has the potential to step up and be a big play threat downfield is Preston Williams.

Similar to Malone, Williams joined the team as a high profile recruit expected to have an early impact. Williams, who signed with the Vols in 2015, was not cleared to practice by the NCAA until late August. This led to him getting off to a slow start in his true freshman season. Injury issues also held Williams back last season.

Despite limited production last season, Williams’ talent level was clear for all fans to see. His breakout game came against Western Carolina, when the true freshman caught this deep pass over the top of the defense.

That was Williams’ first of two touchdown catches on the day. His ability shines clearly on this play; Williams used his athleticism to beat the corner over the top and his size to go up and get the ball at its highest point.

Perhaps Williams’ most impressive catch last season came against Georgia. Williams was running a fade route versus a press man corner. He recognized the tight coverage, and was able to convert the route into a back shoulder fade. Williams reached out and snagged the ball away from his body with his hands, spun out of a tackle, and burst down the sideline for a 33 yard gain.

While Williams looked like a star on those two snaps, keep in mind that you just saw nearly 30% of his statistical output in 2015. Williams only caught seven passes all season.

Now, part of that can be blamed on his late start, and part of it can be blamed on injuries. But the fact of the matter is this: when Williams was on the field, he far too often disappeared. There is no reason a player with his size and athletic ability should only have seven catches.

Going into 2016, it is clear Williams has the talent level to be an All-Conference receiver. But can he become more consistent? That is the question.

Malone and Williams project to start at the Vols’ outside receiver spots. Malone will see his snaps at the Z (flanker) position. He will, more often than not, be the outside receiver to the same side of the field as the tight end. Williams will be playing the X (split end) position, meaning he will always line up to the outside opposite the tight end.

If Malone and Williams play to their potential, this could be a special season. The Vols are primed and ready to make a run at a conference championship. All that is missing from the offense is a big play receiver. With a star-studded backfield, the Vols will almost assuredly have a very good offense in 2016, so long as they stay healthy. But if Malone and/or Williams steps up and stars on the edge, this could be a historically great offense.


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.

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