Film Study: Get Tennessee while you can
On a weekly basis we’re reminded of just how great of a job University of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is doing in just his second year of restoring his historic program.
While a 3-5 record may not reflect such a proclamation on the surface, when you view the job in totality it’s highly evident. Jones’ ability to recruit, combined with his vast knowledge of Xs and Os, makes Tennessee a tough out for anyone it opposes.
The Vols have been highly competitive despite the murderer’s row of a schedule they’ve faced this season: Oklahoma, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama immediately come to mind (the latter of which jumped out to a 27-0 lead before my wife could get dinner properly started).
But in typical Vols’ fashion they battled back — giving a glimpse of what’s in store for next season behind, hopefully, newly minted starting quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Although the Vols will lose some talent (most notably senior linebacker A.J. Johnson), if you take into account the wealth of talent they have returning, meshed with the haul they’ll be pulling in recruiting, you may very well be looking at next season’s eastern division champs.
The rapid rise of both Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi has provided a blueprint for programs to climb out of its current doldrums: be in possession of a dynamic QB, strengthen the interior of your defensive line and have a coaching staff that can routinely out scheme its opponents.
The Vols most aptly fit that description, in the eastern division of the Southeastern Conference, if you take into consideration what they have returning meshed with what they are bringing in.
There’s big things happening for the Orange and White.
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As someone who normally covers the Crimson Tide, I’m very familiar with how a program can be restored rather quickly behind a extremely competent coaching staff that knows how to recruit and develop players.
Tide head coach Nick Saban may be the premier coach in both of those aspects — much to the chagrin of South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, I’m sure. But I’m quickly becoming a believer that Jones is well on his way to achieving a similar status — and it all starts in the trenches.
While Tennessee’s current offensive line has been a source of frustration for all things orange, partly due to injuries, this inexperienced unit will have gone through the rigors of an entire season and will return intact.
But if you want to give your line the best opportunity to succeed, you should provide it with dynamic playmakers at the positions of QB and running back.
And that’s exactly what Jones has done.
I’ve already waxed poetic about the stylings of current freshman running back Jalen Hurd (click here to read my article on him). The 6’3″, 227-pound 5-star prospect has lived up to the hype that preceded his arrival on campus.
While his statistics won’t necessarily jump off the page, 113 attempts for 473 yards (4.2 yards per carry) with two touchdowns, he brings a host of intangibles that’ll help accelerate the growth of an inexperienced QB: unparalleled blocking ability, a keen understanding of defensive schemes and the ability to make something out of nothing.
While Hurd brings the necessary power that an offense needs in the SEC, incoming transfer Alvin Kamara (Hutchinson Community College ) will be the home run threat the Vols have lacked, at times, this season.
The former Crimson Tide 4-star recruit got lost in a numbers game in Bama’s deep backfield rotation, however, I had the pleasure of watching his entire high school career here in Gwinnett County, GA.; Kamara is special player that’s as dynamic as you’ll see.
His ability to line up all over the field will work well in a spread attack like Jones employs. But the 5’10”, 212-pound Kamara also has the size to make a difference in the between-the-tackles game as well; Scatback Derrell Scott provides depth in the form of explosive, playmaking ability.
But there’s only so far a backfield can take you without the benefit of competent QB play. And after his showing against the Tide, Dobbs has definitely shown that he could be a major force to be reckoned with in the future.
Dobbs, for what it’s worth, may be just as dynamic of a runner as those aforementioned backs. Bringing that element to the backfield will retard the rush of the opposing defensive line enough to help the offensive line.
Here we see Dobbs navigating a QB draw out of “10 personnel.” Being as though Freeze runs a power-based spread offense, you will usually see three receivers at the very least, so the presence of a mobile quarterback can take advantage of a “light box” — as you see above.
As an open-field runner, the 6’3″, 203-pound Alpharetta, Ga., native is tough to bring down. He knows how to work off of blocks, and he has some serious acceleration. Defenses may have to dedicate extra attention to Dobbs’ running ability, but in doing so it would open up one-on-one opportunities for one of college football’s premier wide receiver corps.
In this particular sequence, Dobbs shows off his ability to get out on the edges and make plays. On this sprint-rollout, he’s able to help out the offensive line in the move-the-pocket game; he got his shoulder squared to the line of scrimmage; he put the ball where only the receiver could get it.
With Alabama’s superstar receiver Amari Cooper more than likely headed to the NFL, the title of best receiver will undoubtedly move from Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell (6’2″, 230 lbs) has all the tools to move into that top slot, but UT’s Marquez North may be his equal.
The 6’4″, 221-pound sophomore is a human highlight reel with an unparalleled catch radius. While his stats may not necessarily reflect it — 30 catches for 320 yards with four TDs — North has the ability to anchor an entire offense.
His catch-and-advance game is a perfect match for an offense that features hitches, slants, curls and comebacks. There’s not too many defensive backs that can deal with “Baby Terrell Owens.”
However, he’s a key cog in corps that’s chock full of talent.
Highly touted freshman Josh Malone, 6’3″, 202 pounds, has shown similar big-play ability and is a future star in his own right; he’s equally adept in the long game as well as in the short-to-intermediate area.
One play that stood out in my mind was Malone’s TD against fellow superstar recruit Tony Brown. Working against off-man coverage, Malone did a superb job of not telegraphing the back-shoulder throw by looking Brown right in his eyes at the bottom of his route.
As someone who played defensive back, I’ve seen a lot of receivers actually glance at where they’re going to see if they have enough room or if they’re going to be in danger of getting blown up by a big hit.
Malone actually played it as if he were going for a routine jump-ball fade which caused Brown to commit to getting upfield. Dobbs put the ball on him early and he did a great job adjusting to the throw.
Other standout receivers that should be back next year include: Jason Croom (6’5″, 234 lbs), Josh Smith (6’1″, 197 lbs) and Alton “Pig” Howard.
If somehow Tennessee is able to bring back its most dynamic receiver, JUCO transfer Von Pearson (6’3″, 181 lbs), it will undoubtedly have the premier receiver corps in the entire country.
But it’s all predicated on Dobb’s continued progress in being able to hit the routine throw. Mississippi State showed how a dynamic QB, like Dak Prescott, could bring a team together quickly; Tennessee has way more talent than the Bulldogs on offense.
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Defensively, Tennessee will lose its best player in middle linebacker A.J. Johnson — whose sideline-to-sideline ability will more than likely make him an early round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
But for what it’s worth, sophomore weak-side linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin looks as if he could Johnson’s equal when it’s all said and done with. He’s a complete blur who excels at shooting gaps and making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.
At 6’1″, 214 pounds, Reeves-Maybin needs the interior of the defensive line to keep him clean so he can fly around and make plays. Incoming freshmen tackles Kahlil McKenzie (6’4″, 341 lbs) and Shy Tuttle (6’3″, 310 lbs) will make an immediate impact in freeing up the linebackers.
I expect hybrid defensive end/strong-side linebacker Curt Maggitt to slide over into Johnson’s vacated “Mike” linebacker spot. At 6’3″, 244 pounds he has the size, and stack-and-shed ability, to make a major impact in a 4-3-based scheme with dominant interior line play.
The secondary will benefit from improved play in the front seven, as well.
The amount of talent in Knoxville is extremely impressive, and Jones has shown that he’s definitely the coach to restore this program to its rightful place among the elite. The experienced gained over the rest of this season will be worth its weight in gold for Tennessee’s eastern division takeover next season.