Baby We Were…Born To Run?: A preview of Tennessee’s critical search for a balanced offense

It’s time now for us to preview everyone’s favorite side of the football, bc touchdowns. Tennessee’s offense in 2015 was exactly as good as it was supposed to be on the ground. On the throwing/catching end of things….”paltry” might even be a little forgiving when describing WRU’s offerings. A blended attack almost certainly would’ve saved the Vols in at least a few of the heart-attack losses that unfortunately defined an (at times) brilliant season for the Vols. Once that balance is struck, the only remaining obstacle for Tennessee will be not beating themselves. While re-watching season 4 of Game of Thrones episode called “The Mountain and The Viper” this week, in-which the talented Oberyn Martell has all-but defeated the evil “Mountain” but takes his foot off the gas and ultimately gets his skull-crushed by the bad guy at the last second. I remember that scene playing in my head over and over last season. If Oberyn had balanced his speed/skill with some urgency, his brain would’ve stayed in his head. That’s my metaphor and I’m sticking to it. LET’S TALK ABOUT OFFENSE!

 

QUARTERBACKS.

Here is where Tennessee’s 2016 lives and dies. A teams woes are almost always pinned on a signal-caller, because, no matter what, he touches the ball more than

anyone in the game. Tennessee has an incredibly unique situation at quarterback, which has been examined to death, but it continues to confound us. Barring extraordinarily bad fate, Tennessee’s starting quarterback will be verified-genius Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs has held the reigns for 1.5 seasons and boasts a wealth of speed and intelligence. He was rated the second smartest player in all of college football by NFL.com   There’s an argument to be made that, when running, Joshua is the most dangerous QB in college football. He sheds tacklers, spins, runs at track speeds, and has great vision and directional control. He runs like a receiver. The rising Senior is also impossibly intelligent, has a photographic memory, and thus, understands the playbook and field on a level higher than anyone around him. Throwing the ball, however, is something that benefits from intelligence, but requires ability that cannot be taught. We’ve seen the video on twitter of Dobbs hitting the crossbar from 50 yards, but we also saw a whole season where his most spectacular 20+yd throws were rare, and often more work for the receivers than a testament to his accuracy. Don’t get these words twisted: Joshua Dobbs is all the player and leader that Tennessee needs, any team would be lucky to have him, but he must find his arm if Atlanta is in the future. Even if the defensive coaches of the SEC can’t solve Dobbs’s mind, they will solve his legs. Forcing them to worry about his arm is the only way to fully weaponize his greatest ability and get this team to the Georgia Dome. To be fair, Dobbs did finish in the top-5 passers in the SEC in 2015, with 2,100yds passing, but was 1,000yds from the next best passer. The team will need him at 2,500+ to achieve any resemblance of the necessary balance.

(It’s worth mentioning that Tennessee has more depth at this position currently than in recent memory. Interesting years ahead.)

 

RUNNING BACKS

Before you start licking your chops about this section, keep a little bit of boring perspective: Tennessee’s 2015 dependency on the run game is unsustainable. It just isn’t, and nobody wants to see our runners overtaxed, ineffective, or injured. This is the absolute top narrative heading into 2016 for Tennessee. Keep your eyes on this narrative. Now, enough of all that. It is no stretch to call the tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara one of the most effective and dynamic sets of running backs in all of college football, or to call them one of the best ground game 2-punches in program history. With any kind of passing game to keep defenses honest, the stage is set for these two backs to have a legendary year for Tennessee. In spite of only having been on campus a few months, Kamara quickly rose to assume a leadership role, became a fan darling, as well as adding spectacular speed and agility to the Vol backfield. Then, there is Jalen Hurd. By all accounts, at 6-4 and 240lbs, Hurd ought to be a tight end. The problem is: he is a freak of nature in the backfield. From the moment he stepped onto the field as a freshman, Hurd has been blending surprising speed with aggressive, punishing running. This off-season, several videos have been posted of Hurd’s insane workout routine, which includes dry-starting at 23mph on the treadmill, which is damn fast and dangerous to even attempt. When these backs are on the field at the same time, they are … to put it mildly … very, very difficult to stop. That difficulty should only increase in 2016, if Tennessee uses them properly.

 

Wide Receivers

We have droned on and on about Josh Dobbs and how he has to find his arm, but even the greatest passes are incompletions without adequate hands to catch them. This is the most mysterious and stressful group on the Tennessee offense, not to mention a group that does not return its most successful producer from 2015, Von Pearson. Still, by all accounts, Tennessee should still be living up to its historic reputation as a “Wide Receiver U.” The 2016 Big Orange have a talented and experienced Senior leader in Josh Smith, who has struggled with injuries but, when healthy, has been explosive and reliable. On the outside, they have a pair of former 5-star receivers in Josh Malone and Preston Williams. Williams was still on the mend from a knee injury in 2015, but still managed to show glimpses of his endless potential, which should be on full display this fall. Malone on the other hand, has never seemed to find his balance on Rocky Top. The rising Junior will be needed to potentially help carry this team to Atlanta. The group is rounded out by promising new-comers like JUCO Junior Jeff George, 4-star freshmen like Marquez Calloway and Tyler Byrd, as well as high-upside returning players like highly rambunctious QB-turned-WR Jauan Jennings and redshirt Freshman Vincent Perry, who coaches have been very high on. Sounds great, right? The trouble is, this unit is made up of should-be stars and could-be newbies. The pieces of WRU haven’t clicked together into a cohesive, reliable group in many years. The Vol recievers haven’t been this flush with talent or this unproven in many moons. If this group even remotely gels, they could be special.

 

Tight Ends

When Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm arrived on campus, it looked as if Tennessee was going to be have a seriously talented tandem of TE’s for the foreseeable future. That, as we know, wasn’t meant to be. As Wolf quickly developed, Helm felt crowded and ultimately transferred to Duke. The Vols have gotten expectation-exceeding performances from other Tight Ends in Helm’s absence, particularly from walk-on-turned-scholarship Alex Ellis, but all of them combined has still left too much of the work on Wolf. Vol legacy Neiko Creamer seemed to have all the intangibles to be a force at the position, but never found his way onto the field. In 2016, Ethan Wolf will (once again) be head boy at Tight End, but the Vols will have a new array of options for his primary support. The top contender should be the massive, athletic Jason Croom, who’s transferred from wide receiver after missing much of his Tennessee career due to injuries. A healthy Jason Croom, at 6-5 246lbs, with receiver speed and vertical ability, would be an absolute nightmare at this position for defenders. The fact that we’ve never seen a truly healthy version of Croom makes this potential scenario seem distant and dreamlike, and forces us to consider Tennessee’s other, healthier options. The Vols have a pair of promising freshmen who could contribute right away, if called up. At a reported 6-6 and 240lbs, Devonte Brooks is already the size of an established college TE. Local recruit Austin Pope, on the other hand, has more speed than most NFL TE’s, running an alleged 4.6/40yd. The Vols also have a redshirt Senior in the rarely-invoked Joe Stocstill. From a PR perspective, there could be nothing more exciting than seeing Ethan Wolf’s younger brother Eli, also a vols tight end, with his brother on the depth chart, but that’s not entirely realistic. If Croom doesn’t ascend as planned, keep an eye on the TE2 spot in Tennessee’s depth chart. With Dobbs having a relatively limited arm, strength and establishing quality depth here is paramount to this team’s success.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

It feels like fantasy to even suggest that the position on Tennessee’s 2016 team that has (what we consider) the most quality depth, in terms of both ability and experience, is the offensive line. Since Butch Jones arrived in Knoxville, the O-line has ranged from “work in progress” all the way down to “dumpster fire in progress.” On the contrary, the Vols in 2016 are totally flush with talent and experience, throughout the 2-deep. Most of the O-line from 2015 returns, having already established that they can lead the way for Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs to rack up legendary amounts of rushing yards. In 2016, this group will need to take major steps forward in the quality of the steps they take backwards, that is to say, in the way they protect Joshua Dobbs on passing plays. This group finally taking their place as the most reliable sect of the offense would be everything into focus, and they finally have the people to at least get close. Keep an eye on the rise of RS Freshman and former mega-recruit Drew Richmond, who has phenomenal levels of upside and potential.

So, there you have it. If it seems redundant, that’s a good thing, because Tennessee’s offensive needs are finally 1-dimensional. If they do manage to get Dobbs and his arm above average when tossing the ball, that will force defenses to be honest and worry about him, which will open up the running game, which frees up the receivers. If those dominoes fall for the O-Vols, 2016 is going to be an incredibly fun ride. If not, Tennessee may well find themselves in familiar pickles when they face the deep, smart defenses of the SEC. Enjoy that summer anxiety, y’all!

 

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