November 15, 2013

Vols' offense trying to find identity

Three different starting quarterbacks, all with just 13 combined career starts under center, through the first 10 games.

Seven different wide receivers, three of them in their first years in the program, also have started this season for Tennessee.

The Vols are 10 games into their inaugural season in the offensive vision of new head coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, and they're still very much a work in progress.

"Well, again, in Year 1, it's the process of developing that identity, the process of developing that mentality; it's not an instant execution of what we're trying to develop," Bajakian said. "So it takes guys time in the system and it takes guys time in the program to understand that. We're getting better and learning every day. To put a number on it or give an exact location I think would be a mistake."

Still, for a variety of factors it's hard to suggest the Vols have arrived on offense --- and that's what makes the next two games critical. Though he's played every single game of his college career, senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James maintained nothing helped him more than his freshman-year bowl practices and preparations.

"For me, that's when I feel like I improved the most," James told VolQuest.com. "We (as offensive linemen) talk about those bowl practices all the time. We got 15 extra days with coach (Harry) Hiestand and it helped us a ton."

While Tennessee's current crop of younger players have never appeared in a bowl, they insist sending the seniors out with a postseason appearance is of paramount importance. But Joshua Dobbs, now with 10 quarters of SEC football experience, also said improving is a day-by-day process that the Vols need to extend as long as possible.

That echoes what offensive line coach Don Mahoney said.

"That's why more time is critical. And the fact of how much more we can work with them is key and that's what we're working toward and that's more time," Mahoney said of how best to continue developing an identity on offense. "It is important. It really is."

Bajakian and the Vols' offensive coaches are mostly installing a system together for the third time after inserting their schemes at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Those programs all showed improvements from Year 1 to Year 2, but they also scored 34 or more points in nine of their final 10 games that 2007 season.

In the first year at Cincinnati, 2010, the Bearcats score 28 or more points in five of their final 10 games.

Tennessee has struggled to find consistent offensive footing this season; the Vols have topped 30 points just twice in their last eight games after lighting up Austin Peay and Western Kentucky in their opening two games.

"We're still a ways. More so just from consistency with execution," Mahoney explained. "And that's where we're not where we need to be yet. I think that the guys have done a tremendous job of grasping what we really want but we're just not seeing enough signs of it through them throughout consistency with the execution being across the board. O-line, running back, quarterback, receivers you name it to where we've got to be hitting on all cylinders better than we have been.

"It's got to happen [down the stretch]. And we've got to build off some of the success and some of the things we did Saturday (against Auburn) and continue to grow with that and without a doubt be able to carry that into the offseason. The guys understand full and well what we expect, what the mentality of the offense as a whole, the execution, communication, and all those things."

Bajakian echoed the program's need for those December bowl practices, especially as he takes a top-down approach to helping the offense generate more consistent production.

"Obviously, we would like to execute better. That's the number one thing, and again it starts with me looking in the mirror and seeing how we can improve upon that," Bajakian said. "We have not been executing up to our standard and that's first and foremost. We need to improve that.

"It's very valuable [to get bowl work]. It's like having an additional spring football. You get as many as 15 practices for your youth to develop and we have a lot of youth. It would be invaluable."


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