Tennessee Offense Weighs Game-Management Vs. Read-Option
By Dan Harralson
If I were to tell you Tennessee football would endure four consecutive losing seasons followed by a top-five recruiting class and the nation's top class of 2015 recruits buzzing about the Vols' program, you would probably ask why, and how, is this possible?
Credit second-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones for holding the rope and getting through last season — a season that was nearly a winning one, but two plays (against Georgia and Vanderbilt) took away two victories that kept the Vols at 5-7. Nonetheless, it was a season of fast-forwarding to better times.
The foundation has been laid, the recruits are coming in and Tennessee football is being talked about again off the field, and for good reasons. The next step is for Tennessee football to be discussed on the field again, in a positive tone, and that will come over time. The key is to be patient.
The 2014 Vols, better known as Team 118, will field young talent that will be looked upon to produce early. There are still areas of concern that will determine if the ball can be distributed to the incoming skill-position play-makers who will be on display for UT this fall.
The primary areas of concern come at quarterback and on the offensive line. Over summer break, the Tennessee quarterback position took a turn when red-shirt freshman quarterback Riley Ferguson announced that he was leaving the Tennessee football program. His departure leaves Team 118 with only three scholarship QBs.
I sat down with Reed Carringer of Football Time Magazine to get his take on what this means going into fall camp.
"It (Ferguson leaving) was a surprising move in some aspects, for everyone that covers the program," Carringer said. "We all knew one of the four scholarship quarterbacks were going to transfer, but by all accounts, Riley going into fall camp had a chance to win the starting job."
Ferguson was in the same signing class as Josh Dobbs, but was initially recruited by former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. Dobbs was on his way to signing with Arizona State on signing day 2013, but Jones was able to flip Dobbs' decision on National Signing Day to Tennessee.
"For whatever reason, there was a lot going on behind the scenes," Carringer said. "It obviously hurts Tennessee from a depth perspective and the starting quarterback job."
Breaking Down The QBs
As Ferguson exits the program, the attention will be centered around the three scholarship QB's on the roster. They all started games a season ago.
Justin Worley is back for his senior year, Josh Dobbs started the final four games last season after Worley was hurt in the Alabama game, and Nathan Peterman received his lone start at The Swamp against Florida in an experiment by Jones and his staff.
"It's the million-dollar question," Carringer said of the race. "Worley is the most experienced quarterback on the roster obviously, and everyone knows what Worley brings to the table."
Worley brings a game-manager approach to the table, which may be ideal for the upcoming season. His approach is more ideal and suitable this year than last year, and incoming talent is the reason why Worley's tactics may be why his approach is more suitable.
Worley provides excellent decision-making, as far as reading defenses prior to plays, checking down when needed and audibling out if needed.
The problem with Worley's game-manager style of play last season was that there was not the offensive skill players like there were during Dooley's last season (2012) and will be for Worley in the 2014 season.
Having the luxury of Josh Malone, Von Pearson, Jason Croom, Josh Smith and Pig Howard on the outside as receivers will instantly provide defensive leverage for Worley in 2014.
On top of having new additions in the backfield with Jalen Hurd and Derrel Scott, check-downs and audibles just became easier for the senior QB, not to mention having such newcomers Daniel Helm at Ethan Wolf at tight ends.
Josh Dobbs And The Offensive Line
Like everything good in life, there come struggles and questions. With all of the buzz and hype centered around Tennessee's skill players coming in, the offensive line takes a hit.
All five starters on the offensive line have departed, leaving the newcomers to come in and step up quickly.
"This is the only position of this year's team, to comfortably predict, that will be worse from last year," said Carringer.
If you can't run the ball and play respectable defense in the SEC, your championship hopes are small. The Volunteers will lose 182 offensive line starts due to graduation, returns six starts and lose 101 defensive line starts and returns only eight starts.
Out goes Ja'Wuan James (drafted by Miami in the first round) who set the Tennessee record for games started on the line with 49. Also leaving is Kansas City sixth-round draft selection Zach Fulton (40 starts), James Stone (39 starts) and Alex Bullard (25 starts). Antonio Richardson also departs after declaring early for the NFL Draft. He started the final 24 games of his college career.
Red-shirt junior Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson, sophomore Dylan Wiesman join junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, true freshman Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson in trying to come together to field a cohesive offensive line unit for whichever offensive scheme Jones fields.
Dobbs' approach may be the perfect remedy and counter punch to having a young offensive line. The sophomore QB has added muscle weight this offseason, allowing him to absorb more hits and should be able to run more read-option type plays, much like Jones and his staff ran at Cincinnati.
"I think so, and Dobbs really fits the bill for that," Carringer said. "He's not a Nick Marshall running a 4.3 (40), but he does have some straight-line (ability) and if he makes the correct read, something he does better than Worley on the read option, he can be dangerous.
"He (Dobbs) can get you four or five yards, or he can break one for 60. We've seen that when he gets in the open field and it's hard for defenders to bring him down. It really adds a new element to the offense."
The new element and the transition of Tennessee being able to run the read-option, like Jones did at Cincinnati, has people excited.
"By and large, people in Knoxville are excited to see him play because of that," Carringer concluded.
No matter who emerges as the starter — or if both QBs play a role in the offensive scheme the incoming talent around them should allow both to prevail offensively.