Does Tennessee have to develop a downfield passing game to win a title?
A radio host within the SEC footprint recently posed a question: Is Joshua Dobbs a championship quarterback?
The implied question as it pertains to the 2016 Tennessee Volunteers is how much better does UT need to get at throwing the ball downfield if it wants to win an SEC Championship?
Spoiler alert: Tennessee can win a conference title with Dobbs as its quarterback.
If you’re looking for No. 11 to morph into Peyton Manning this offseason — due to the tutelage of Mike DeBord — you’ll be disappointed this fall. Dobbs is a terrific running quarterback who just gets by as a passer, as long as he doesn’t have to go to this second and third read all that often.
Dobbs has managed two 300-yard passing games in essentially a year-and-a-half as a starter. One of those came against a hapless South Carolina defense, and Dobbs needed overtime to get there. The team’s most productive returning receivers, Josh Malone and Josh Smith, combined for 712 yards in 2015.
On the positive side, Dobbs takes care of the football. He threw just 5 interceptions in 344 passes last season. On the negative side, he managed just 6.7 yards per pass attempt, which Greyson Lambert (7.7), Perry Orth (7.4) and even Treon Harris (7.1) all exceeded.
Tennessee needs Dobbs to process defenses at a quicker rate and be able to zip through his reads.
At the same time, the Vols aren’t reliant on a passing game to win. The team’s three best options are to run Jalen Hurd, run Dobbs or run Alvin Kamara.
Although Dobbs is a much different player than former Alabama quarterback turned SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy, who ran for a grand total of 71 yards at The Capstone, their roles in the passing game are similar. In fact, their junior seasons are pretty close statistically.
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McElroy, of course, led Alabama to a 14-0 season and a national championship as a junior in 2009. And he had the benefit of a future NFL All-Pro receiver Julio Jones as well as a superior offensive line.
But the two otherwise played very similar seasons, completing about 60 percent of their passes and throwing an interception once every two or three games.
In 2010, McElroy’s numbers leaped. He completed better than 70 percent of his passes at 9.5 yards per attempt. Instead of repeating as national champoins, the Tide lost three games, which it hasn’t done since then.
The difference? Alabama’s running game and defense slipped. That’s what differentiated a 14-0 Alabama team in ’09 from a 10-3 team in ’10, despite much better quarterback play.
Tennessee is in position to hold or improve its running game and defense in 2016.
The Vols claim the SEC’s No. 2, No. 7 and No. 8 returning rushers from 2015. Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara will get every opportunity to boost Tennessee higher than 20th in the nation in rushing yards per game, which is where Team 119 finished last year.
DeBord may not be a quarterback whisperer like the erstwhile Lane Kiffin. But his biggest influence on the offense has been along the offensive line, which improves the play of everyone.
UT stands to lose just three players from its entire ’15 two-deep on defense. That group allowed 20.0 points per game.
Shave a field goal off that defensive total, nudge the running game toward an extra 20 yards per outing and get an occasional extra completion downfield from Dobbs. That’s all it would take for the 2015 team that lost close games to the likes of Alabama (national champion), Oklahoma (College Football Playoff participant) and Florida (SEC East winner) to become a championship program.
Losing Von Pearson is a blow, as he caught 35 passes in his final nine games in Knoxville. But Malone, Smith and even tight end Ethan Wolf averaged more yards per catch than Pearson, who was more of a start-and-stop guy capable of moving the chains than a true downfield threat.
The hope is that sophomores Preston Williams and Jauan Jennings will be able to provide that element. Tennessee did sign five receivers in its 2016 class, including 6-foot-6 JUCO transfer Jeff George — an early enrollee — and four-star athlete Marquez Callaway, both of whom could make an impact this fall.
It is possible to contend for an SEC title with a mediocre running game and a defense that sometimes gives up yards in bunches, as we’ll see from Ole Miss. But the Rebels return a 4,000-yard passer in Chad Kelly.
It’s also possible to put together a balanced team that beats you at the line of scrimmage, keeps your offense on the sideline and limits its mistakes.
Last year’s game against Alabama is a great example. Tennessee nearly won in Tuscaloosa, but the Tide scored the game-winning touchdown with 2:24 remaining. One can argue that the Vols gave Bama their toughest regular-season game of the year. Ole Miss did win in Bryant-Denny Stadium, but needed a plus-six turnover margin, somewhat of a gift from the Tide.
Team 119 was just a few offensive plays away from knocking off the national champions on the road. Dobbs threw for 171 yards, 1 touchdown and no interceptions in a 19-14 loss. But perhaps if Dobbs had completed a third-and-10 from the Alabama 33 earlier in the fourth quarter, instead of an incomplete pass that led to a missed 51-yard field goal, UT wins that game.
It’s not going to take much for the passing game to improve enough to where it can be an asset on a championship-level team. Opposing defenses are going to have to cheat toward defending the run on early downs and when Tennessee holds a lead.
But in tight ball games, especially when Tennessee is trailing in the fourth quarter, the Vols are going to need Dobbs to hit on occasional throws to his second or third read against some of the better secondaries in the SEC (Alabama, Florida, Georgia). With marginally better protection and an improving receiving corps, being able to read defenses even three- or four-tenths of a second faster could make all the difference for Dobbs.
It’s not realistic to expect Dobbs to suddenly blossom into the kind of dual-threat quarterback that Cam Newton was at Auburn, winning the Heisman Trophy, a national championship and then a few years later leading a team to a Super Bowl. It’s probably unrealistic to expect him to even be equal to the 2015 version of Dak Prescott or Brandon Allen.
Tennessee doesn’t need all that from Dobbs to win football games.
So to answer the question posed in the headline — yes, Tennessee needs to develop a downfield passing game. But it doesn’t have to be awe-inspiring in order for Team 120 to reclaim the SEC East.