On Wednesday night, I sat down to dinner with two members of my Sports Source panel. Three hours later, former Vols Daniel Hood, Will Overstreet and I had dissected Tennessee’s 2-2 start. When the bill was paid — they made me pick up the tab, naturally — we left with a notepad full of observations and questions. Below, I’ll share 10 of them.
1. Are Tennessee’s coaches taking personnel into consideration or are they simply scheming Xs and Os? That might seem like an odd question, but consider the loss of Curt Maggitt. His absence in the fourth quarter versus Florida played a large role in that game’s outcome. Defensive coordinator John Jancek brought blitzers from all angles as the Gators tried to kickstart their passing game. On fourth downs, however, he chose to drop seven, rush three and assign a spy to Florida quarterback Will Grier. With Maggitt on the field, the Vols may well have gotten to Grier with a three-man rush. Clearly, Derek Barnett is a bigger pass rushing threat when teams have to worry about his cohort on the other side of the line. But Maggitt wasn’t there. Without him, should the Volunteers’ have tried a different approach? Time and again Jim McElwain’s team converted fourth downs. Grier had time to pass. That’s just one example, but it causes one to wonder if this staff simply believes in the “next man up” theory of football. Many coaches do. “Once you’re in the game, we trust you to do the job of the man who was in before you.” On Saturday — and even against Western Carolina the week prior — it was evident that the next men up couldn’t rush the passer like Maggitt. Why, then, go with a three-man rush? (Keep in mind that Jancek took responsibility for the calls and stated that the looks UT used had given Grier trouble right up until the fourth quarter. Again, some of these points are points… and some are questions. This is purely a question.)
2. Are the best players on the field? That’s a pretty straight-forward query. Unfortunately the answer isn’t so clear. Let’s look at the Vols’ offensive line. A year ago, UT’s offense was at its statistical best when the original five linemen chosen to start at the beginning of the season were all on the field together: Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson and Jacob Gilliam (another Sports Source panelist). Gilliam graduated and is now prepping for a legal career. Jackson, in a serious blow to the team, was lost for the 2015 season in August. Jackson is a senior and the team’s most experienced lineman. Kerbyson and Crowder are also seniors. Had Jackson, Kerbyson and Crowder been back in the starting lineup this year it would have left Butch Jones and crew in the difficult position of having to replace three offensive line starters heading into the very important 2016 season. It’s certainly possible that once Jackson went down, the staff decided, “Let’s focus on the future.” The senior, Crowder, went to the bench while sophomore Coleman Thomas took his place at center. Last season, the offense had its two worst days of the Josh Dobbs era when Crowder missed the Missouri and Vanderbilt games due to injury. Crowder’s taken some heat, but I can tell you that the ex-linemen I’ve spoken to believe he provides plenty of fight. Before the season, Gilliam said on our show that Crowder was the line’s leader last season. Odd then that he’s on the bench now. That said, it’s hard to blame the coaching staff IF they decided to play younger players across the front in order to be better prepared for 2016. But there are other areas where it’s fair to ask if the best man is playing. Alvin Kamara is an electric talent with breakaway speed and moves. He’s averaging 26.0 yards on three punt returns. That includes one touchdown (and another was brought back due to a flag). Meanwhile, Cam Sutton is a solid, steady punt returner. He averages 13.8 yards per return. Sutton was Tennessee’s punt returner for most of the Florida game. Kamara’s only return in the game went for 22 yards. Shouldn’t Kamara be fielding punts? A question can be asked at linebacker, too. Former walk-on Colton Jumper continues to get starts. Freshman Darrin Kirkland continues to come off the bench. In three starts, Jumper has recored eight total tackles and one tackle for loss. Kirkland in one start and three backup appearances has recorded 14 tackles, two sacks and two-and-a-half tackles for loss. It’s possible that Jones remembered the failed Nathan Peterman experiment from his first trip to The Swamp and decided not to throw Kamara and Kirkland into the deep end of the pool right at game’s start. But the question remains, if they’re the best players — and they clearly look to be — why aren’t they playing from the get-go?
3. Do these coaches look for and identify specific strengths for each of their players… and then do they put those strengths to use? Tennessee has had a devil of a time finding quality linebackers to put on the field. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is becoming an indispensable player on the Vol defense. Aside from the junior from Clarksville, 10 of his 11 linebacking compadres are in the first or second year of college football. Fine. Let’s say they’re not up to speed and not ready to log serious minutes in the SEC just yet. But is there no way to find a use for those backup linebackers other than special teams and scrub time? Does one of them — Elliott Berry, Dillon Bates, Austin Smith, etc — have a quick first step that could be utilized in UT’s pass rush? We’ve already noted above that the Vols sorely miss Maggitt’s ability to get to the quarterback. While Tennessee’s young linebackers might not be ready for three-down action, someone might be ready for third-down pass rush action. After all, Maggitt was a linebacker before becoming a defensive end.
4. Tennessee needs to ignite its passing game via play-action. Tennessee has the third best rushing attack in the SEC. Kudos to the coaches for cranking out 248.0 yards per game on the ground. But when you’re averaging 4.75 yards per rush and you’re looking for a way to revive a dormant passing game, play-action passes should be a breeze. One of the few examples of the play-action game came on the Vols’ successful fourth-down jump pass from Kamara to Ethan Wolf last weekend. Other than that, there haven’t been many plays when Dobbs fakes the hand-off and then steps back to pass. There haven’t been many occasions when Dobbs — who ran for 136 against Florida last week — has faked a quarterback-keeper only to hop up into a passing stance. UT’s receivers have had a hard time getting open (even against Western Carolina, which is very worrisome). The play-action game when you’re gaining nearly five yards a carry should leave someone uncovered. The offensive line is still wildly inconsistent in pass protection. Talking to Hood and Overstreet — a pair of former D-linemen — it was clear that nothing slows a pass rush like a good play-action game. So where the heck is it?
5. It’s time to get Jalen Hurd and Kamara in the backfield at the same time. Want to scare the hell out of an SEC defensive coordinator? Put the power-back and the speed-back on the field together. Does the option roll in Hurd’s direction or Kamara’s? Better yet, simply motioning Kamara out of the backfield to a wide position would create a favorable matchup for the offense. Most offensive coordinators would lick their chops at the prospect of a linebacker trying to cover Kamara in open space. Attacking and exploiting the defense’s weakest link would become easier if Kamara — or Hurd — could be moved around the formation, forcing opponents to react. Tennessee has two outstanding running backs. They should be on the field together more often.
6. How much can Dobbs audible and what can he audible to? As we left the WATE studio this past Sunday, the word was already getting around to our panelists — Dobbs can’t check off as much as he did last year. That was the word from players on the current team. Sports Source panelist Jimmy Hyams asked Jones about that rumor on Monday and the coach said Dobbs “has freedom on certain plays and a lot of times there are built in audibles within one play.” The coach also said that Dobbs can have up to three different options on a given play. That’s a relief. If you have an astronaut for a quarterback, here’s hoping he’s trusted to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Trouble is, I don’t recall seeing Dobbs walk up to his linemen and change many plays last Saturday. And in that stadium he would have had to have walked to his linemen in order for them to hear him. But let’s take Jones’ word for it that Dobbs can audible. Nothing was said about the junior quarterback being able to check from a run to a pass. In fact, another rumor that’s made its way out of the Vol football complex is that Dobbs can only check into the speed-option game, allowing him to take on blitzers one-on-one. Once again, I’m going to take Jones at his word that Dobbs can audible and I’m going to give the coach the benefit of the doubt that he allows his quarterback different types of audibles. That still leaves me with one concern — Why are people inside the program leaking information about Dobbs’ audible opportunities? There are a lot of people associated with a college football team and they all have different motivations. Someone’s mad because he wants more playing time. Someone’s mad because he’s not getting the ball enough. Someone’s making excuses to cover his own butt. Whatever the truth is regarding this much-discussed rumor, it might take until the Vols’ road trip to Alabama for us to figure this one out for sure. It will be loud in Tuscaloosa. If Dobbs audibles, we’ll all see him walk to his linemen and give them the new play.
7. “Butchisms” aren’t the reason Tennessee wins or loses football games. When Jones arrived in Knoxville it became clear to me that all of his sayings — “The Power of One,” “Brick by Brick,” “63 Effort,” etc — were going to be HATED when he lost enough games to tick people off. Remember how everyone loved Derek Dooley’s orange pants… until he lost a few too many games? Then folks wanted them burned (with him in them). How ’bout the Phillip Fulmer clap? Good play, bad play, clap-clap-clap. “Working like heck,” became a hated saying the more Tennessee’s football fortunes trended downward. When you win, everything is sunshine and lollipops. When you lose, well, you can’t say or do anything that isn’t met with a roll of the eyes and an angry tweet. Good example: Asked how he focuses when there’s so much negativity outside of his program, Jones said this week that he tunes out the “clutter.” Some reacted angrily to that. “Oh, so those of us who pay your salary are clutter?” It was childish and it came from fans and media members (many of whom also happen to be fans). But what should Jones have said? “Well, I just spent the last three hours reading a messageboard because I want to know what our fans are thinking.” Until he starts winning on the field, he can’t do anything to win off the field.
8. You can make a case that Tennessee IS making progress. No one is happy about losing to Oklahoma and Florida. Personally, I think the UF loss is much worse than the OU loss. Points at the end of a game count just as much as those at the start of a game. So those people crowing that Tennessee had more talent than the Sooners are a little off-base in my view. Jacksonville State led Auburn deep into the fourth quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium before losing, but I don’t believe JSU has more talent than the Tigers. Oklahoma hurt, but it was understandable. Florida, on the other hand, should’ve definitely been a win. No one cares that Maggitt was out, that Barnett missed some plays in the fourth quarter or that Sutton was off the field due to an injury on Florida’s game-winning drive. That’s a tough break for Jones. But we all SAW that offense. The Vols had no business letting that offensive roster score two last-quarter touchdowns. All that said, Tennessee lost in overtime to Oklahoma and by one point at Gainesville. Hurts for Vol fans, but in the grand scheme of things a case can be made that the Vols are making progress.
9. Would Jones change the way he does business if needed? If a person has had success in his chosen field, it’s very hard for that person to abandon his own philosophy. “This works. I know it works. I’ll keep doing it until it works again.” Many a company has gone from leader to follower because it stuck to its tried and tested plan… even as other businesses changed strategies and changed the playing field. It happens in sports, too. Fulmer, who built a Hall of Fame resume in the 1990s and early-2000s, saw his program drop off over his last few seasons. When Lane Kiffin vamoosed from Knoxville in 2010, his predecessor was asked what he would do if he were rehired to the Tennessee job. Fulmer said he would start by putting his old staff back together. Wrong answer. Now, that’s no knock on Fulmer. Again, he’s a Hall of Fame coach. But it’s very difficult to do the same things over and over and expect bad results to turn good again. Which brings us back to Jones. In his opening press conference in Knoxville, Tennessee’s coach declared that his system was proven. Every team that had bought into it had won championships. Sounded good. Now, however, people are wondering if a system that worked in the MAC and in the Big East can work in the SEC. And if it can’t, could Jones ever admit to himself that his system/philosophy/strategy needs to change? If it comes down to it, his willingness to swallow his ego and adapt and adjust — if need be — could mean the difference between success and failure for Jones in Knoxville.
10. Game-management issues are going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for Jones. Coaches err. High school, college, pros. They all make mistakes. Jones’ mistakes have become a focal point for fans and media. Les Miles has made some downright batty decisions over the years, but he’s also had superior talent that’s been able to cover his gambles and gaffes. Jones isn’t quite there yet in terms of talent. But now that EVERYONE is talking about his in-game decisions, fans will be watching for the slightest hiccup in game management. And they will come. Let me give you some examples. They happen everywhere. Jones took a beating for not going for a touchdown on 4th-and-a-foot versus Oklahoma. But on the same day, Oregon’s Mark Hefrich chose to go for the TD in an almost identical situation at Michigan State. The Ducks didn’t get the touchdown and they lost by three points. Oregon fans were livid that their coach had passed on the “sure points” of a field goal attempt. Jones has been pilloried for his team’s clock management (and rightly so versus Florida). Against Oklahoma, Dobbs failed to run the play clock all the way down when the Vols were trying to burn clock. “How could Jones do that?” A week later, Ohio State was trying to run out the clock versus Northern Illinois. ESPN announcers Mike Patrick and Ed Cunningham let Urban Meyer have it because his team wasn’t running the play clock down before snapping the ball. That’s a guy who’s won three national titles. Last Sunday I saw the Jacksonville Jaguars take a delay of game penalty in punt formation from their own 30. Last night you might have seen the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin fail while being both conservative and daring. In the fourth quarter, milking a three-point lead, the Steelers went uber-conservative and ran the ball into the line time and again deep in Baltimore field position, settling for a pair of field goal attempts. They missed both kicks and the Ravens eventually got the game into overtime. In overtime, Tomlin decided he wasn’t going to be conservative. So on a 4th-and-2 near the Ravens’ 40 he went for the first down… didn’t get it. His defense held and the Steeler offense reached the Baltimore 33 on its next possession. On 4th-and-1, rather than trying a 50-yard field goal, Tomlin rolled the dice again. And again his fourth down play was stuffed. The Ravens then marched right down the field and won the game on a field goal of their own. So did Tomlin lose because he played not to lose in the fourth quarter… or did he lose because he was too reckless in overtime? Some decisions work and some don’t. Coaches have game management issues all the time. But Jones has now gained a reputation for late-game snafus. Which means even the teeniest, tiniest decisions will result in talk show and social media debates. Be ready for it. You’ll hear game management questions about Jones from now until the day he and Tennessee part ways. Whether other coaches are making some of the same mistakes or not.
— John Pennington