3 ideas to improve Tennessee's struggling offense
“I feel like it’s been a reality check for a lot of people on the team. … What we’ve been doing is not (working).”
—RB John Kelly
Through five games, the single (positive) certainty on Tennessee’s offense is John Kelly. The junior has been a one-man band for the Vols, leading the SEC in all-purpose (723) and rushing yards (494).
But other than that?
Tennessee’s offense has mostly resembled Yosemite Sam, with Kelly saying that too often the Vols “shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Turnovers, penalties and youth have all accounted for the various problems, as Tennessee ranks No. 98 nationally in yards per play (5.19). There are no quick fixes here, but the bye week presents an opportunity for Tennessee to tinker some things.
Following the school’s first shutout loss since Peyton Manning was a freshman, here's three ideas to jumpstart Tennessee’s attack during the second half of the season.
1. Hand the keys to Jarrett Guarantano … and run
The decision to go with quarterback Quinten Dormady out of training camp made sense. Guarantano wasn’t ready, the Vols already had a green group of playmakers and Dormaday, a junior with several years of experience in the system, was supposed to provide a steadiness for the offense.
Accuracy and ball-security were billed as Dormady’s top strengths, but the experiment has failed miserably. Dormady is tied for the league-lead with six interceptions. He’s gotten away with four or five more, too. His 55.5 completion percentage ranks 11th in the SEC and his yards per pass (6.8) ranks 12th. The passing game struggles are definitely not all Dormady’s fault (drops, penalties, shaky OL play), yet inexplicably, Tennessee has attempted more passes than any team in the SEC this year.
It’s time for a change.
The backup quarterback in a struggling offense is always the most popular man on campus, but it’s obvious the attack under Dormady isn’t working. The Vols should let Guarantano take the reins and dial up their 2015 playbook: Lots of zone reads, tempo and deep shots on first down. Tennessee was excellent on third downs in 2015 because it faced so many short-yardage situations. That hasn’t been the case this fall.
With a defense that’s shown some signs of improvement, the Vols need to run the ball more and shorten games. Ty Chandler should get more touches as well, but Guarantano can be the spark-plug for the ground game.
He won’t replicate Josh Dobbs’ Houdini magic, but the threat of Guarantano’s legs should allow the offense to get back to a scheme it’s been much more comfortable in the last few years.
2. Find a five-man offensive line and stick with it
The Vols have run out four different starting offensive line combinations through the first five games. They’ve tinkered with several other lineups during games, too. A suspension, a key injury and poor play has contributed to the shuffling, but all the changes have led to zero continuity up front.
And it shows.
While the unit — which returned more starts than any Power 5 team in the country — has several glaring problems, communication has been particularly dreadful, oftentimes leading to penalties and/or negative plays.
Walt Wells has a tough task here. There’s not a ton of talent outside of freshman Trey Smith, and Tennessee’s numbers took another hit with the midseason transfer of Venzell Boulware.
Still, the Vols need to settle on a five-man unit and roll with it — lumps and all.
If that means developing Marcus Tatum as the right tackle and playing Brett Kendrick inside, then do that. If that means rolling with an all-Tennessee lineup (Drew Richmond, Jack Jones, Jashon Robertson, Smith and Kendrick), go that route.
Personally, I’d try Kendrick at left guard and Tatum at tackle, with Jones as the super-sub at both guard spots, center and right tackle.
Regardless, Tennessee’s offense has zero identity or cohesion and it starts with the struggling hog-mollies up front.
3. Get the tight ends involved more in the passing game
Before the season, many believed (myself included) that Tennessee would target the tight ends a lot in 2017.
The thought process was rather simple: Ethan Wolf was a senior and Larry Scott, a first-year OC, would lean on his position group with a new quarterback and a young corp of receivers.
Thus far, the prediction has been wrong.
On the year, Wolf has just 90 yards receiving on 10 catches — the three freshman tailbacks who play sporadically have combined for 9 receptions.
Kelly, as well as Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson have shown playmaking ability and should remain Tennessee’s top targets, but part of the offense’s efficiency issues are a lack of targets to the tight ends.
The Vols' three secondary receiver options — Josh Palmer, Tyler Byrd and Josh Smith — have a combined catch-rate of 30 percent, per Football Outsiders. That’s really bad.
Palmer has just five catches on 15 targets. Smith and Byrd have both been targeted nine times on the season, with only three and two catches respectively.
Meanwhile, Wolf has had two drops this year, but he’s corralled 10 of 15 passes thrown his way. In a very small sample size, backup Jakob Johnson and Eli Wolf have caught their only targets.
Tennessee’s tight ends don’t need to be the focal point of the passing attack, but the unit should be involved more, affording (a likely new, young) quarterback with some safe and easy throws to keep the offense moving forward.