I’ve hosted more than 600 episodes of The Sports Source over 13 football seasons. One thing I’ve learned is that former players very rarely put the blame for struggles on current players. If given a choice between “players’ fault” and “coaches’ fault,” fingers usually point toward the guys making six- and seven-figure salaries.
This past Sunday, I put the following question to former Vols Jacob Gilliam, Daniel Hood, Sterling Henton and Bobby Scott regarding the receivers’ ability to get open: “Is this a coaching issue or a talent issue?”
You can see their responses for yourself:
Personally, I believe there’s enough blame here to go around.
First, I’m not seeing much separation between Tennessee’s outside receivers and opposing defensive backs. I didn’t see tons of separation last year or the year before, for that matter. It’s one thing to scheme your guys open — more on that in a second — but at some point a Marquez North or a Josh Malone needs to prove that he has the strength to beat press coverage, the smarts to beat zone coverage or just the speed to beat man coverage. Especially against DBs from Western Carolina.
Preston Williams immediately stepped onto the field Saturday and made plays. He did three things on Saturday — he made a play on the ball on his first touchdown from Dobbs, he got a half-step on a defender and hauled in a deep ball from Quinten Dormady, and he smartly broke off a route and ran in the direction of Dormady for this second touchdown catch.
Has another Tennessee receiver done those things with consistency? No. Granted, Williams’ success came against a poor FCS opponent. But he certainly had more success than his fellow wideouts. Does he have more talent — he WAS a five-star signee — or has he been coached differently? My early take? He’s more talented.
Second, the Vols’ receivers aren’t making the most of the balls they do catch. Everyone’s tired of the five-yard hitch and the down-the-line-so-it’s-basically-a-pitchout pass. But the Tennessee offense — going all the way back to Walt Harris’ days as offensive coordinator in the early-80s — has had receivers make the most of those receiver screen-type plays. Willie Gault, Tim McGee, Anthony Miller, Thomas Woods, Carl Pickens, etc, have all taken those down-the-line passes and turned them into long gains and touchdowns. This bunch of Tennessee’s receivers hasn’t shown me that they can do special things with the ball in their hands. Von Pearson was billed as the next Cordarrelle Patterson. Has Pearson reminded you of Patterson?
Third, where are the Welker/Edelman routes? Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have picked apart opposing defenses in recent years with quick underneath throws to Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. The pass is out in two seconds and the receiver gets inside/underneath the coverage for the quick gain. As long as you have a tough receiver — those guys do get belted — you’ve got easy five-yard gains built into your offense.
There is a danger in throwing short over the middle, of course, as any miscommunication or tipped ball could result in a DB running with the ball in the other direction. But if Tennessee’s coaches are too scared to throw quick slants and option routes — the latter of which require the quarterback and the receiver to always be on the same page — then they’re going to have bigger problems than an occasional interception moving forward.
At 5-8, 180, Pig Howard certainly fits the Welker (5-9, 185) and Edelman (5-10, 198) mold. He’s also shown that he can do damage with a slant or a shallow cross.
And Tennessee has not been fearful of throwing over the middle in the past. Specifically to Howard (as seen in the videos above and the video below).
So perhaps this will be the week that UT’s most consistent playmaker over the past two years — Howard — takes on a larger role in the offense. Perhaps this will be the week that Tennessee gets back to testing the middle of the field, hopefully with short crossing routes that provide Dobbs a quick outlet for when his offensive line fails him.
And while the VFLs on my show believe play-design to be the key issue holding back the passing game to date, I’ll be watching to see which receivers for Tennessee can stand up to the challenge of facing Florida superstar corner Vernon Hargreaves. Will the Norths or Malones or Pearsons of the world be able to go toe-to-toe with Hargreaves and his mates to make their share of plays? We’ll see.
Coaches? Receivers? I think UT’s passing game needs some improvement from both groups. But we’ll have a better idea of which group leaves the most to be desired once we see the Vols’ passing game go up against one of the SEC’s best defensive units.
— John Pennington