Vols must grow on the ground
A week ago, the Tennessee offensive line was dubbed “TVA”, a throwback nickname to some former Vol greats who ruled the line of scrimmage for Big Orange offenses.
Today, we all realize that nicknames should not be passed out at Tennessee after you play Missouri.
Humbled and nickname-less, these Vols must focus on growing offensively, specifically in the run game. Tennessee must find an answer to that question against the big boys. And while Kentucky may not be considered “a big boy” to some, the Wildcats have a stout defense who’s been good against the run against Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State.
The formula for the current Vols is simple: run more, throw less.
In Tennessee’s seven wins starting with Mississippi State last year, Tennessee is averaging 26 passing attempts a game and are averaging 169 yards rushing.
In their last four losses, they are averaging 30 passing attempts a game and have rushed for 68 yards per contest.
Let’s hit a couple of topics before we press on, as they will be relevant later…
Quarterback play will dominate the fans talk this week. Jarrett Guarantano did not play great at Georgia. He’s also not the only reason why Tennessee lost their halftime lead.
Georgia is really good on defense, particularly in the defensive front. I think they are the best in the country. They worked over the Tennessee offensive line.
Who also really got pushed around in Athens was the young Vol wide receivers. They got manhandled by the Georgia secondary, providing no separation. Only Josh Palmer made plays and each of his catches was contestant tightly. With that youth at receiver who struggled against press coverage, getting separation on the perimeter will not be a given at any point in 2020. They will see “press man” all year.
It was a group effort in Athens by the Tennessee offense. The Georgia defense beat the Tennessee offense in every phase. Not totally surprising, as a majority of those Bulldog defenders will play on Sundays.
But Tennessee has to be better than 36 yards on 16 tailback runs. No matter the opponent. No matter the time. No matter the situation. Especially right now.
We can all agree that the Vol passing game has limitations at this moment, right? And it probably will all season, yes?
If so, then what’s the best part of the Tennessee offense?
The Vol offensive line. It should be one of the very best in the SEC.
Every o-lineman that Tennessee starts was highly-rated coming out of high school. And for “the stars don’t matter crowd”, I will say it this way: everyone who started on the offensive line Saturday Between the Hedges was coveted by both Alabama and Georgia. Actually, one starter signed with Alabama and another started for Georgia---last year.
The talent is there. They have to play better. They played smarter. They have to dominate. Several guys on this unit will play on Sundays, too. Because of that, it’s fair to expect more from them NOW. Look at this group and no one needs to be say ‘We just have to patience because we are rebuilding’.
The offensive line is rebuilt.
And offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has to be creative in the run game. Even without a mobile quarterback, you can be creative. And Tennessee isn’t heavy at running back so hammering it between the tackles against a really good defensive front isn’t going to be real effective.
Like in the Missouri game, Tennessee surprised the Tigers with “the jumbo package” and it worked. Chaney only trotted it out a couple of times against Georgia.
Against Missouri and to open the second half at South Carolina, the Vols used the “no huddle offense” to prevent substitutions and it was effective. Tennessee gave up on “tempo” Saturday too quickly.
Against Missouri, Chaney pulled his tackle on a wide run for two touchdowns. Creative. You don’t see a lot of pulling tackles. In the first two weeks, Chaney called jet sweeps for first downs.
I’m not saying he should have done any of that against Georgia or that any of that would work. What I’m saying is that there was some imagination and creativity in the run game the first two weeks that was effective.
That imagination didn’t seem to be there in week three.
And Chaney has to CALL more running plays. 16 tailback runs in an SEC road game that was competitive into the fourth quarter are not enough.
Given youth at wide receiver, no viable pass catchers at tight end and where Jarrett Guarantano is 4+ years into his career, these Vols need an effective run game. And if you are an “Anyone But Guarantano” person (an “ABG”) when it comes to quarterbacking, you are still going to running game.
So if you think it was one thing or one guy who cost Tennessee the game at Georgia, fine. Georgia is better than Tennessee at this moment in 2020 so the only thing the Vols lost was a football game. One game. They are 2-1. Tennessee was a double-digit underdog at Georgia for a reason.
If you want to really lose something, lose to Kentucky Saturday at Neyland Stadium because you could not run the football on the Wildcats. .
This coaching staff turned things around in 2019 because they did a super job coaching the team that they had---not the team that they DREAMED of having---very well down the stretch. The Vols continue to show signs of making a move on “the big boys”, but they aren’t there quite yet. A foundation, however, certainly seems to be in place.
How do you coach this Tennessee team well over the next 7 weeks? How do you take the talent you have at this moment and make the most of it? How do you continue to lay the foundation?
You build on your strength. And this team’s strength had better be their offensive line. Tennessee’s step forward at this moment in time is power up-front.
Let’s hope that after the Florida game in December, the “TVA” moniker will actually be deserved.