Last Year’s Turnaround Wasn’t All Dobbs

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard 50 times since January. “There’s no need to worry about the offensive line with Josh Dobbs running the zone-read offense.”

There’s some truth there, but it’s hardly the cut and dried argument that many believe it to be. Yes, Tennessee offense did kick into gear once Dobbs was inserted into the lineup against Alabama last season. But there were a couple of hiccups along the way that many folks have simply chosen to forget.

A 29-21 loss to Missouri and a hard-fought 24-17 win over Vanderbilt, anyone? Remember those? Dobbs was doing his zone-read thing but the results weren’t so glowing. There was a depleted running back corps versus Vandy, but that was still a Commodore team that had been whipped by Mississippi State 51-0 the week prior. Jalen Hurd shouldn’t have made THAT big of a difference versus the Dores.

This isn’t to suggest that Dobbs didn’t play a big role in UT’s 4-2 finish after a 3-4 start. He did. His legs meant that opposing defenses had to account for a true running quarterback and that limited foes’ plans.

But the offensive line played a role in the Vols’ reversal of fortunes, too. For that reason, Tennessee fans should be very much concerned about the development and growth of that line this past offseason. It’s why they should be concerned that two bodies have already been lost for the season. Austin Sanders was destined for a backup role, but Marcus Jackson was Don Mahoney’s most-experienced lineman. Their season-ending injuries are worrying developments.

In addtion, there have been rumors of other offensive linemen contemplating transfers. And Butch Jones is catching some flak for putting Coleman Thomas – who struggled greatly last year – back into the catbird’s seat at right tackle. (For the record, we’re told Thomas’ advantage over Brett Kendrick is his “physicality” while his obvious advantage over Drew Richmond is his knowledge and experience.)
All those O-line issues bear watching.

Simply counting on Dobbs to spackle over holes in the O-line is a risky proposition for those who think nine or 10 wins are there for the taking for old UT. Not to mention the fact that if Dobbs is having to save the offense from the linemen in front of it, what’s to happen if Dobbs so much as rolls an ankle?

But back to 2014 and what the data tells us about Tennessee’s midseason course correction.

The coaches’ original plans for the offensive line included the following five men: Jacob Gilliam at left tackle (thanks in part to the disappointment of juco transfer Dontavius Blair), Marcus Jackson at left guard, Mack Crowder at center, Jashon Robertson at right guard and Kyler Kerbyson at right tackle. That group didn’t make it out of the season opener as Gilliam – now a weekly Sports Source analyst – was felled by an ACL tear against Utah State.

Kendrick took Gilliam’s spot versus Arkansas State. Then Kerbyson was moved to the other side of the line to replace Kendrick and Thomas was forced into RT duty, though he’d never played that position before in his life. He must’ve felt cursed taking over that spot at Oklahoma. It was a night to forget for the young man.

That lineup – Kerbyson, Jackson, Crowder, Robertson and Thomas – started the next four games together as UT fell to Georgia, Florida and Ole Miss and defeated Chattanooga (while surrendering umpteen sacks).

A week after the blowout loss at Oxford, Gilliam did the improbable and returned to action WITH a torn ACL. So the line shuffled again versus Alabama – Kendrick was given another shot, Kerbyson moved to guard, Crowder and Robertson remained while Gilliam replaced Thomas at right tackle. Dobbs made his debut after a pair of quick Nathan Peterman series. Nick Saban and his players admitted they’d prepped for the wrong guy, but Dobbs looked good regardless of how off guard Bama had been caught.

The following week, Kendrick was seated again as the original five linemen were back in action – Kerbyson, Jackson, Crowder, Robertson and Gilliam – though the tackles had flip-flopped sides from Game One.

Suddenly, the Volunteer offense started clicking in a high-scoring overtime win at South Carolina and in a trouncing of Kentucky in Knoxville. Then came an injury to Crowder, the center and leader of the O-line. Dylan Wiesman replaced Crowder and suddenly an offense that had been rolling ground back down to a halt, as mentioned above. Even with Dobbs and his fleet feet doing the zone-read thing.

Against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, Mahoney’s first five were back in action – Kerbyson, Jackson, Crowder, Robertson and Gilliam.

So much for the history lesson, let’s dive into math class. Let’s look at the numbers from 2014 and see if Dobbs really deserves all the credit for the Vols’ resurrection.

Out of 13 games, on only four occasions did the original starting five offensive lineman play (Utah State, South Carolina, Kentucky and Iowa). Other O-line combinations were on the field for UT’s remaining nine games.

 

9 games without original O-line – 4.09 yds/rush, 5.78 yds/pass att, 4.3 sacks/gm

4 games with original O-line – 4.95 yds/rush, 8.15 yds/pass att, 1.0 sacks/gm

 

Now let’s look at the impact Dobbs had on the offense. While he didn’t start, he did see the majority of work versus Alabama so we’ll count that as a Dobbs game along with Carolina, Kentucky, Mizzou, Vandy and Iowa.

 

7 games without Dobbs – 3.86 yds/rush, 6.11 yds/pass att, 4.28 sacks/gm

6 games with Dobbs – 4.94 yds/rush, 6.98 yds/pass att, 2.16 sacks/gm

 

Things were certainly better with Dobbs and his running ability.

But a little less than a quarter of the season featured both Dobbs AND the original starting five offensive linemen – South Carolina, Kentucky and Iowa. So let’s compare the original O-line’s work to Dobbs’ work to their combined efforts.

 

4 games with original O-line – 4.95 yds/rush, 8.15 yds/pass att, 1.0 sacks/gm

6 games with Dobbs – 4.94 yds/rush, 6.98 yds/pass att, 2.16 sacks/gm

3 games with Dobbs & original O-line – 5.48 yds/rush, 8.60 yds/pass att, 0.6 sacks/gm

 

The results are pretty clear. Dobbs aided the offense immensely. A running quarterback gives opposing defenses one more thing to worry about.

But Dobbs was better and the Tennessee offense was at its very best when Dobbs was playing behind the five linemen the coaching staff had initially tabbed as starters (Kerbyson, Jackson, Crowder, Robertson and Gilliam).
When Dobbs and that starting O-line were paired up the rushing yards per carry jumped, the passing yards per attempt were high and sacks became almost non-existent.

For that reason, those people who are ignoring the early injuries on this year’s offensive line because “Dobbs will fix it,” are off base in my opinion. Will he help to mask O-line deficiencies? Of course. But UT’s offense in 2014 really hummed when Dobbs had a solid line in front of him.

Banking on Dobbs to be a human bottle of snake oil – fixing all that may ail the Vols’ offense in 2015 – isn’t fair to the junior quarterback. And it isn’t completely based in fact. Last year it was a combination of QB and O-line that helped Jones’ turn things around and finish on a high note. Here’s guessing it will require a similar combination to win games this fall as well.

— John Pennington

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One Response to “Last Year’s Turnaround Wasn’t All Dobbs”

September 17, 2015 at 3:52 pm, Three Areas Of Concern For Tennessee | Sports Source said:

[…]  Offensive Line.  Hey, I told ya so on this front.  I’ve written that Josh Dobbs was NOT the pure 100% reason that the offense turned things around last season.  We’ve taken it up on our TV show on August 16th and again on August 30th.  Maybe Oklahoma […]

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