Film Study: Why the Tennessee offense is the most versatile in the SEC
After ending the year on a six-game winning streak, Tennessee posted a 9-4 record in 2015 that was its best since 2007 when Phil Fulmer was still roaming the sidelines at Neyland Stadium. The Vols were within one possession in each of their four losses (losing all four by a combined 17 points), and in three, Tennessee held a fourth-quarter lead.
The 2015 season was very good for Tennessee, and had a few bounces gone the other way early in the season, it could have been great. Looking ahead to 2016, the Vols aim to build upon the incredible momentum they built on the field, and with 17 returning starters next season, Tennessee is the favorite to win the SEC East.
Perhaps the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Vols next season is an offense that features a Swiss Army knife quarterback in Joshua Dobbs, two of the best running backs in the SEC in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and a deceptive use of personnel (and the tight end position specifically) that makes the Tennessee offense the most versatile in the SEC.
The Tennessee Offense By the Numbers
In Mike DeBord’s first season as offensive coordinator, Tennessee scored 35.2 points per game in 2015, giving the Vols the third-best scoring offense in the SEC. The Vols finished second in the league in rushing (223.7 yards per game), and ranked No. 9 in passing offense (198.6) for a total of 422.3 yards per game, which made Tennessee the No. 7 total offense in the conference.
Hiring DeBord as the program’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach was a controversial move by head coach Butch Jones. DeBord had been out of football since 2013, hadn’t been a coordinator or coached in college since 2007, and spent nearly his entire career coaching the offensive line or tight end position. However, the move seems to have paid off. Tennessee improved in three of the four major offensive statistical categories, having averaged 28.9 points, 370.5 yards of total offense, 146.4 rushing yards and 224.2 passing yards on average in 2014.
The unit was also very consistent all season. In the first four games of the year, the Vols averaged 431.0 total yards per game. During the second four, Tennessee averaged 417.3 total yards per contest, and in the final four games of the regular season, the Vols gained 419.3 total yards on average. In the Outback Bowl, Tennessee gained 420 total yards against Northwestern.
Of course, DeBord and Jones also benefitted from an experienced quarterback with a multipurpose skillset that is perfect for the offense he and Jones run.
Joshua Dobbs is a Swiss Army Knife
The tools found in a Swiss Army knife, such as a sharp blade, a screwdriver, scissors, and more than a dozen others, aren’t perfect. However, there are a ton of them, and they’re usually good enough to get the job done. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs is the Swiss Army knife of SEC quarterbacks because, while not an elite passer, he combines several different tools — athleticism, intelligence, and poise under pressure to name a few — to make him one of the most dynamic signal-callers in the SEC.
Dobbs was expected to redshirt in 2014, but was forced into action midway through the season as the result of an injury to starting QB Justin Worley. Dobbs’ first action came in relief in a loss to Alabama, and he threw for 192 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception, adding 75 rushing yards.
After averaging just 332.4 total yards of offense per game through eight weeks, Dobbs got his first start of the season against South Carolina. He made an immediate impact and led the Vols to a 45-42 overtime victory over the Gamecocks with 301 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 interception, 166 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. The Vols rolled up a season-high 645 total yards.
In the final four games of the regular season, Tennessee averaged 424.3 total yards, won three of four games to become bowl eligible and beat Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl behind 461 total yards of offense. It’s easy to say that Dobbs had the single biggest impact on Tennessee’s offensive turnaround, and with more experience and more weapons at his disposal, Dobbs entered 2015 with an opportunity to become one of the top QBs in the league.
It’s important to note that the passing game, and specifically his spotty accuracy, can sometimes pose problems for Dobbs. Last season, Dobbs completed 205 of 344 pass attempts for 2,291 yards, 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. While his interception rate improved from .034 (6 interceptions in 177 pass attempts) as a sophomore to .015 (5 picks in 344 passes) last year, his rating dropped from 130.5 to 127.0 and his accuracy suffered as well. Dobbs completed 63.3 percent of his passes in 2014, and just 59.6 percent in 2015.
However, Dobbs’ multiple tools often make up his shortcomings. For example, when Dobbs struggled in the passing game against Florida (10-for-17 for 83 yards), he made up for it with 136 rushing yards and a 58-yard touchdown catch on a trick play.
It wasn’t enough to push the Vols to victory as Tennessee fell 28-27, but Dobbs was able to keep his team in the game and gave them an opportunity to win.
Overall, Dobbs added 671 rushing yards and 11 TDs on 146 carries, making him the most productive rushing quarterback in the SEC last year. Many of those yards came when Dobbs was flushed out of the pocket on passing plays (the Vols allowed 24 sacks last season, and that number would have been far higher if Dobbs had not been able to his his instincts and athletic ability to elude many oncoming pass rushers), or when some other opportunity presented itself.
Against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, Dobbs scored on an 18-yard run in the fourth quarter that pushed Tennessee’s lead to a commanding 31-6, though the play wasn’t executed as it was drawn up. Facing a third-and-2 situation, the snap from center was off target to Dobbs’ left, and the quarterback couldn’t handle it cleanly in time to hand off to Hurd on an apparent zone play. The ball rolled on the field seven yards behind the line of scrimmage until Dobbs picked it up, spun around, raced along the sideline and dove into the end zone.
Many quarterbacks would have just fallen on the ball, or would have picked it up only to be quickly tackled – both of which would have pushed the offense to the edge of field goal range. But Dobbs had the ability to turn a busted play into the game’s knockout blow.
Hurd and Kamara: Run CMG
Opponents have much more to worry about than Dobbs. Moreover, finding an answer to the running back combination of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara might pose an even tougher challenge.
Tennessee wasn’t head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the SEC in any particular category in 2015, but the team has an obvious strength at the running back position.
Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara give the Vols one of the best running back duos in the league, and the pair calls themselves the CMG, or Chain-Moving Gang. Naturally, the moniker led to the creation of a Run CMG video by VFL Films, featuring the classic Run DMC song, “Tricky.”
Hurd, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound bruiser, ran for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns on 277 carries (4.7 yards per attempt) as a sophomore. Kamara, the 5-foot-10, 215-pound lightning to Hurd’s thunder, added 698 yards and 7 TDs with an electric 6.5 yard-average. With Dobbs added to the mix, there’s no better three-headed rushing attack in the league.
Hurd and Kamara are more than ball carriers. Kamara ranked second on the team with 34 receptions in 2015 and tied for the team lead with 3 touchdown catches. His 291 receiving yards were fifth on the squad, but just 118 fewer than leading receiver Von Pearson. Also a capable receiver out of the backfield, Hurd hauled in 22 passes for 190 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a 37-yard score.
Naturally, a coaching staff with two dynamic playmakers at their disposal would try to get them on the field at the same time. Tennessee did that often in 2015, including this easy touchdown pass that gave the Vols a 7-0 lead against Vanderbilt, which was set up by an earlier swing pass to Kamara.
Hurd and Kamara also allow Tennessee to keep fresh legs on the field late in any contest. A former five-star recruit like Kamara can give Hurd a rest over the course of a long drive, or even allowing Hurd to take an entire series off in the middle of a game, and the offense doesn’t miss a beat. And, as it turns out, the Vols may actually be at their best with one running back on the sidelines.
Versatile Package Gives Vols Big Advantage
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Tennessee offense, and what flies under the radar for much of the general public, is how the Vols use their personnel to create individual mismatches and keep opponents off balance.
For example, in the Outback Bowl, Tennessee opened with both Hurd and Kamara in the backfield, plus three wide receivers – known as “20 personnel” because there are two running backs and zero tight ends.
The Vols ran the same swing pass to Kamara that helped set up the first score against Vanderbilt, but didn’t go back to the wheel route that allowed Pearson to get so wide open against the Commodores. In fact, Tennessee didn’t put Hurd and Kamara on the field at the same time again – or any “20 personnel” grouping for that matter – until late in the third quarter.
Instead, Tennessee put its base 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) onto the field, and stuck with it nearly every play for the rest of the game.
The Vols leveraged versatile tight ends in a concerted effort to give the Wildcats many different looks despite staying in 11 personnel. Sometimes, Tennessee tight end Ethan Wolf or Alex Ellis (the pair rotated regularly) aligned at the end of the line of scrimmage with a hand on the ground like a traditional tight end:
Other times, the tight end lined up off the line, similar to a wing back:
Or split out as a wide receiver:
Or even in the backfield as an offset fullback (after a pre-snap shift):
And, on the first score of the game, Dobbs ran a quarterback draw out of a quads set — a formation the Vols would use only once:
Why does this matter? Because Northwestern (or any opponent) decides what personnel it puts on the field based on the players Tennessee has in its huddle (or waiting for a play call on the field since the Vols often operate without a huddle).
For instance, if the Wildcats coaches (usually one coach in the sky box is responsible for communicating offensive personnel to the defensive coordinator) see that Tennessee has four wide receivers in the game, they are likely to counter with a nickel or dime package. Of course, the Vols never put a true 10 personnel package (1 running back, zero tight ends, 4 wide receivers) on the field. When Tennessee lined up with four wideouts in the Outback Bowl, one was always either Wolf or Ellis. Therefore, Northwestern was often forced to drop at least one linebacker into coverage pre-snap, which gave the Vols a matchup advantage in the passing game.
As a result, Northwestern wasn’t likely to ever put an extra defensive back on the field out of fear that Tennessee would line up in a more run-oriented formation, perhaps by shifting the tight end into the backfield. If the Wildcats did play nickel or dime, they would do so based purely on down-and-distance (third-and-long, for example) or a hunch. And, if Northwestern guessed wrong, Tennessee punished the Wildcats by ramping up the tempo and running play after play without substituting, which wouldn’t allow Northwestern to substitute its own mismatched personnel.
By moving Wolf and Ellis all over the field, the Northwestern players on defense had to communicate quickly just to get lined up properly, much less execute their responsibilities for each unique play call. Obviously, since the Vols won 45-6 and Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs wore down the Northwestern defense in the second half to finish with a combined 397 total yards, the Wildcats didn’t execute very well.
Does this make DeBord or Jones an offensive genius? No. Plenty of teams move their tight ends all over the field to exploit offensive mismatches (remember O.J. Howard’s performance in the national title game?), but this is an example of how the Tennessee coaching staff utilizes the talent at its disposal to win football games.
With so much of that talent returning — Dobbs, Hurd, Kamara and Wolf, in particular — it’s reasonable to think that the Vols can be even better in 2016. They can even be the most versatile offense in the SEC.