Ever since VolQuest’s Brent Hubbs correctly noted last Saturday night that Tennessee had rolled up most of its yards in the first 14 to 20 plays against South Carolina — plays that offensive coordinator Mike DeBord had scripted ahead of time — the “DeBord can’t call plays after the script” meme spread across Vol messageboards and Twitter feeds.
That’s no fault of Brent’s, mind you, but it was the weekly, “Ah, ha!” that was grasped upon by a few folks looking to uncover UT’s ongoing second-half troubles. Earlier in the season, it was a case of Tennessee going ultra-conservative that was viewed as the big issue. Against Oklahoma that was true. But against Florida, the Vols’ next to last drive — and that, oh, so ugly QB sweep to the short side of the field — was the only truly conservative drive in the second half. And against Arkansas, midway through the fourth quarter, DeBord called three pass plays in a row from inside the Vols’ own 10.
Well, personally, I think there’s probably more to the story than simple conservatism or a lack of imagination once DeBord runs out of scripted plays.
First a little backstory.
For those who don’t know, the scripting of plays really took off with NFL great Bill Walsh. Not when he was the head coach of the 49ers, but when he was serving as an assistant coach for Paul Brown and his Bengals back in the 60s and early-70s. Yes, it goes back that far.
Most coaches who script the plays for a game do so in order to feel out the opposing defense, to see how the other guy will react to certain sets, personnel groupings, etc. “If we use one back, two tight ends and two receivers, what defensive package will they send in? Who’ll cover who?” That gives a play-caller, in theory, an advantage when calling the non-scripted plays later in the game because he already has an idea of what a defense will do in response.
Some coaches like Andy Reid — he typically scripts the first 15 plays of a game — will roll out as many different personnel groupings as possible early. Mike Holmgren, like many coaches, often used one or two of his first 15 scripted plays to set up the defense for a surprise play later in the game.
Many coaches also like to script their opening plays so they can practice those runs and passes over and over and over during the week.
But scripting plays doesn’t mean the coach lives and dies with his play-sheet. Defenses make adjustments. An offensive coordinator might know how to attack early in the game, but come halftime — or sooner against good coaches — the defensive coordinator will figure out a way to stop the offense from exploiting his unit’s weaknesses. Second, no team can live and die by those first 15 or 20 scripted plays.
Think about it. Let’s say DeBord’s script says that on Play Six, he’s running a sweep to Jalen Hurd. And now let’s figure that Play Six turns out to be a third-and-15 due to a stop-for-loss and a penalty. It’s very likely that DeBord would deviate from the sweep and go to a pass or a perhaps draw in that situation.
And even if DeBord scripts his plays by down and distance, there are still going to be times early on when he breaks away from what’s written on the paper.
All that said, there’s no denying Tennessee has had good success in the first quarter of games. The Vols have scored 93 of their 316 points in the opening stanza (29.4%). But Tennessee has been even more effective in the second quarter… after the script has been pushed aside (99 of 316 points or 31.3%).
Further, the Volunteers have tallied a very good 83 points in the third quarters of games (26.2%). It’s just the fourth quarter that’s been the bugaboo in terms of scoring — just 34 points through nine games (10.7%). (In case you’re adding along at home, there’s an additional seven points that were scored in overtime versus Oklahoma.)
Several folks have also dug into the total offense by quarter data. Those yardage numbers zipped around the interweb midweek. The basic gist is that the Vols start off hot and get progressively cooler quarter by quarter. My problem with that stat is that it doesn’t take into account the number of plays run by the offense. Think back to the struggles the Vol defense had in getting Oklahoma and Florida off the field late in those games. Hard to blame the offense for not piling up yardage when the defense couldn’t get DeBord’s boys back on the field.
So I took a look at the yards gained per snap instead of just total yards. And with Tennessee clearly being a run-first team, I looked specifically at the rushing yards per attempt per quarter. Here’s what I found…
1st Quarter: 5.04 yards per rush
2nd Quarter: 5.25 yards per rush
3rd Quarter: 3.83 yards per rush
4th Quarter: 3.76 yards per rush
Pretty big switch there at halftime, no? Well, there’s enough of a difference there that DeBord’s ability to change up UT’s attack on the fly — when defenses adjust — must be part of the issue. It’s been a while since he’s called plays in a game and their could be a re-learning curve involved. But I don’t think it’s all on DeBord.
The reason I don’t? Joshua Dobbs.
As we’ve seen for much of the season, Dobbs is not a consistently accurate passer. He’s hit on some nice ones (like the 75-yard TD pass to Josh Malone against Kentucky). He’s also had a few drops work against him (like the perfectly thrown deep ball that clanged off Malone’s same hands against Carolina last week). But taken on the whole, Dobbs rarely strings three or four nice passes together. One’s high, one’s low, one’s perfect, one’s high, one’s low and so on.
Dobbs’ completion percentage is currently sitting at 58.6 (just 56.3 versus Power Five squads). That’s down from 63.3% last season. Even in five games as a freshman he completed 59.5% of his passes. Again, it’s not all on the junior quarterback, but it is fair to say Dobbs has been a much more effective runner than passer this season.
So what have we seen from Tennessee’s offense this season? A hot start running the football in the first and second quarters followed by defensive adjustments — typically eight or nine guys thrown into the box and/or run blitzes — and then an offense that cools in the third and fourth quarter.
It’s hard to run with eight and nine men in the box. If you’re a run-first team, that’s a real problem. So how do you adjust? You throw the football, beat the defense over the top and force them to back the heck out of the box and respect the pass. And I think that’s part of the issue — Dobbs hasn’t been consistent enough to punish defenses through the air. In the first half of games he’s 95 of 107 (60.5%) with 1027 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s when his passing is the two in a one-two, run-first punch.
In the second half of games he’s completed 52 of 94 passes (55.3%) with 733 yards, four touchdowns and two picks.
Could DeBord call more passes in the second half in the hopes of keeping the defense honest? Yes. Despite Tennessee’s terrific rushing numbers and scoring numbers this season (both are on pace to rank in the top three all-time in UT’s season-by-season rankings), DeBord has to shoulder a chunk of the blame for the Vol offense stumbling in the second halves of games. The buck stops with the coach. But methinks Dobbs’ inconsistent accuracy is part of the problem as well.
Just one man’s opinion.
Onto a couple of other quick thoughts in no particular order…
1. We in the media can whine a bit at times, can’t we? Butch Jones dared last Saturday to suggest the writers and talking heads in town be more positive about his program. He’s hardly the first coach to say something like that. And to my knowledge, no one in my profession follows his marching orders when he gives them, so I don’t know why Saturday’s comments made such a splash.
I saw his short “positivity” comment from last Saturday referred to as a “rant” in a several places. I saw some of us in the media upset that Jones would dare try to tell folks in the press how to do their job. Boo-hoo. We say and write whatever we like. There’s rarely any blowback.
I once wrote a piece about three big changes in Phillip Fulmer’s program toward the end of his run as told to me by nine — NINE — former Vols who served as sources. Fulmer responded by basically calling me a fibber. Strong take. And my reaction was… so what? I can write and say what I want as long as it’s true to the best of my knowledge and NOT personal, so a coach can say whatever he likes in response. We’ve both got rights. I’m 40. I’m a a man. (For the record, all nine former Vols said they thought Fulmer was the guy to fix what ailed UT at the time… as was written in that piece.) If we in the media can say whatever we like about coaches — and some folks just getting into the media who’ve never taken a journalism class can say some pretty outlandish stuff these days — then the coaches should be able to retort.
In Jones’ case, he was calm in his delivery. He even caught himself midway through and said “I love you guys” to the assembled media. If that was too harsh, how would we in the Knoxville press deal with guys like Mike Gundy, Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban?
And for those of you tired of #Butchisms — he’s been using them since his introductory press conference — try a Bill Belichick presser. There are worse things than cliches. (Snort, eyeroll, mumble.) Further, Steve Spurrier went down the same road as Jones just a couple of months ago when an “enemy” writer in Atlanta was quoted in Columbia’s main newspaper. It happens. Alert me when Jones blasts someone unfairly. Then I’ll join in the chorus of boos.
2. Having said that, Jones does need to trim down his rabbit ears. He’s got a football program to run. To date he’s done a pretty good job of it, in my opinion. If he left today, the next coach would inherit a better roster than any Tennessee coach not named Fulmer over the last 45 years. But in this day and age, everyone has a voice and 20% of the people are going to hate their team’s coach. Period. End of story. He can’t change that. Those folks who didn’t want him hired are never, ever, no way gonna accept him. Can’t win ’em over. Dunzo. Therefore, he shouldn’t worry about ’em. It does him absolutely no good to try to get the local press corps to write only positive things about his team. That’s not the job of an independent media. The sooner he learns that the easier his life will be. But the sad truth is most coaches never learn that. I suspect Jones won’t either.
3. Someone must’ve posted it on a messageboard this week because on Wednesday I got three different emails from folks saying, “If Nick Saban were coaching Tennessee’s roster we’d be undefeated right now!” Couple of problems with that line of thinking. First, Saban isn’t undefeated with his own team right now and he’s in Year Nine in Tuscaloosa with a veteran team. That one seemed kind of obvious even to me. Second, if the measuring stick is Nick Saban/Urban Meyer, then there are about 123 schools that need to fire their coaches this year. To my knowledge, there’s just the two of them. All-timers like that don’t grow on trees. I get the “why not us?” mentality, but if you consistently aim for the best of the best of the best you’re probably going to be stuck in Coach Search Mode an awful lot. So you hire the best guy you can and you hope like Hell he turns into a really, really good coach over time. Meyer has been on a hot streak since his first job, but for kicks, check out Saban’s record at Michigan State. Or Les Miles’ record at Oklahoma State. It took Saban a while to become a genius and he was aided by a move to the untapped talent pool of Louisiana in earning his Einstein-status. Miles, in typical Miles fashion, was simply lucky enough to inherit what Saban had already built.
4. This week alone I’ve had people tell me that DeBord needs to give more touches to Hurd… and Alvin Kamara… and Ethan Wolf. Quick question: Who exactly gets less touches if all those guys get more touches?
5. Dobbs was clearly banged up against Arkansas earlier this season and again against South Carolina last Saturday. Jones and DeBord both referenced his health versus the Gamecocks this week. Dobbs — a good leader — said it’s just a part of football and he’s good to go. That’s what he should say even if it’s not completely true. But when Dobbs is banged up and the Vols don’t call as many power runs right up the middle, he’s a very average quarterback. Good arm, but not an entirely accurate arm. He also fumbles way too often (10 on the year with four lost by Jimmy Hyams’ count). When Dobbs is running he makes up for all of that and more. His legs are to UT’s offense what Peyton Manning’s arm used to be — the gasoline. When he’s not healthy or running or both, the Tennessee offense just isn’t the same. Versus Missouri next week, a team he’s never thrived against, Dobbs will be in for a test if he’s still bruised. The Tigers have a good defense (if they haven’t thrown in the towel following this past week’s on-campus craziness).
6. Not to wish bad things on another program, but as Vol fans, it has to feel good knowing you’ll watch the UT/Mizzou game and it will be the OTHER team having to deal with controversy, ESPN timeline graphics and media shame. Seems like the shoe’s been on the other foot for about a decade now. Let someone else put a paper bag over their head for a change.
7. We all need to start paying more attention to things outside the Big Orange Bubble. Last week was supposed to be a rout. I suppose because Carolina was “bad” and Tennessee had blown out Kentucky the week prior. But a week before pushing the Vols deep into the fourth quarter at Neyland Stadium, the Gamecocks had done the exact same thing to Texas A&M in a 35-28 loss at Kyle Field. Just because some folks want UT to cakewalk through the rest of the schedule doesn’t mean it will happen. And that’s a word of warning. The Volunteers — as noted above — haven’t deciphered the Missouri defense the last two years. And Vanderbilt has been a bigger thorn for the Vols than anyone in orange would like to admit. Last year’s 7-6 TaxSlayer Bowl joy came about only because of a 24-17 nailbiter versus a Commodore team that plays good defense and views its year-ender with the Vols as its Super Bowl. Tennessee may skate past both, but I’d be surprised if that’s the case.
8. Some interesting stats on Dobbs:
In UT’s wins versus Power Five foes (Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina), Dobbs is a 59.8% passer averaging 267 yards with a QB rating of 143.53. He averages 5.36 yards per rush.
In UT’s losses versus Power Five foes (Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama), Dobbs is a 53.2% passer averaging 173 yards with a QB rating of 120.00. He averages 3.16 yards per rush.
As is the case with most teams, as the quarterback goes, so go the Vols.
9. A few weeks ago on The Sports Source we did the math and showed you that Tennessee continues to be the youngest team on the field week after week. The Vols’ offensive and defensive starts have been divided 50/50 among upper- and underclassmen. Their foes’ splits are more like 70/30 in favor of the upperclassmen. So even if you’re tired of hearing it, the Volunteers really are still young. And they’ve been riddled with injuries. That’s not local spin, listen to the broadcasters covering Tennessee just about every Saturday.
Well, I wanted to see what kind of schedule the Vols have played compared to their SEC brethren. Guess what I found? Yep, one of the youngest teams has faced THE best schedule to date:
I don’t believe the following will happen, but wouldn’t it be something if in a couple of years we look back to find that Jones had actually coached this team up? More youth than the big boys on his schedule. Three losses to teams currently sitting at 8-1. Injuries all over the place. Maybe instead of being the doofus who should darn well have his team undefeated — please — instead he’s a guy that’s milked quite a bit out of a team with two makeshift lines and freshmen and sophomores running all over the field.
My guess? Somewhere between the doofus and genius the truth lies. Hopefully closer to the genius.
See you Sunday morning at 11am on WATE-TV 6!