A major element to Tennessee’s success offensively against Florida the last two years came from the legs of former quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
Dobbs had 136 rushing yards in the nail-bitting loss at UF in 2015, and he finished with 80 yards and a touchdown on the ground in the comeback win last season.
The running threat from the Vols’ quarterback ultimately opened up big passing play opportunities in 2016 — see Jauan Jennings smoking Teez Tabor and Josh Malone’s long score — but with Dobbs now off to the Steel City, Tennessee is preparing to challenge Florida’s stiff defense in others ways this Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS).
Could we see a heavy dose of RPOs?
RPOs — or run-pass-options — have become a popular concept in college football, with offenses from Oklahoma to Clemson incorporating the deceptive scheme to befuddle defenses. The basic idea of an RPO is a run play, with the offensive line blocking as such, but a receiver or tight end only faking a block and then releasing to run a quick route.
Reading the defense, the quarterback has the decision to either stick the football in the tailback’s belly or fake the run and throw a quick pass. The route concepts are normally simple — slants, hitches or quick posts — but the idea is to confuse linebackers and secondaries and put them into positions where they’re compromised for an easy gain.
Fifth-year coach Butch Jones has typically relied on a duel-threat signal-caller for his spread offense, with the zone read a major element in Tennessee’s scheme in recent seasons. That’s not so much the case with Quinten Dormady at quarterback this year, as the junior, who isn’t the fleetest of foot, has recorded just two quarterback keepers for 13 yards in two games.
Jones wants Dormady to run more starting this weekend against the Gators, but an increase of RPOs is a way for Tennessee to emphasize the quarterback’s other strengths.
"We need to involve him more in the running game,” Jones said of Dormady. “All we want for our quarterback to do when we involve them in the run game is to be efficient. Our definition of efficiency is a 4-yard run. That’s going to be imperative no matter who our quarterback is. I do think the evolution of RPOs have really been able to take a running quarterback and kind of put his legs into his arm so to speak though. That has kind of changed the dynamics in terms of not playing with a running quarterback, but still having the same effect of reading a defender.”
Dormady is more athletic than he’s oftentimes given credit for, but the junior is not suddenly going to start ripping through defenses with his legs like Dobbs.
Instead, Tennessee is using Dormady's arm as the duel-threat element in the play. The Vols ran several RPOs against Georgia Tech, and Dormady recorded completions of 15 and 17 yards off RPOs in the win over Indiana State.
“It may not be your eyes reading a defensive end, but it may be the WILL linebacker or the nickel," Jones explained.
"But in order to be successful you have to be able to run the quarterback a little bit and he has to make plays with his legs, particularly in this game as well because of their speed defensively."
Dormady said he’s willing to run “as the situation presents itself,” but the quarterback’s strengths are his accuracy and decision-making — both which come into play on RPOs. Tennessee expects Florida to load the box and force someone other than tailback John Kelly to beat them, and RPOs are another way to challenge Florida’s young, but aggressive secondary. If the Vols are successful early with a few RPOs, it could also open up more traditional play-action passes out of the shotgun.
Naturally, Tennessee’s first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott didn’t want to reveal his gameplan Tuesday when asked about the offense’s recent emphasis RPOs. Scott almost acted like he didn’t hear the question and said, “More or less we’re doing what the defense gives us. We’re just taking it structurally as the defense gives you."
We'll find out Saturday in Gainesville what that exactly looks like against Florida in 2017.