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10 Questions for 2015 #6 - DeBord, Pace & Playcalling

The 2015 offense will operate differently than its most recent elite counterpart in 2012, and could be most successful by the new coordinator following the plan the previous one was working on.

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Given our recent passion for coaching turnover, the transition from Mike Bajakian to Mike DeBord has been relatively quiet.  At any major program a new offensive or defensive coordinator is usually the lead question coming into a new year.  But there's so much positive momentum and hype surrounding Tennessee right now, I feel like some fans may have even forgotten such a high-level change was made.

It's the quiet Butch Jones was going for here, which is often the opposite of what we see in a hire.  New coordinators are often brought in to do something different than the old guy, something more exciting or more in fashion.  Instead the Vols got older in both age and school, with an emphasis on not changing.  So while there was initial disappointment when the Vols didn't make a noisier hire back in February, the ol' "trust the man in charge to be in charge" standby once again quickly won the day for Butch, and it's been mostly crickets on DeBord ever since.

It will, however, get noisy this fall, in either praise or blame.  It's hard for us to fully judge what Bajakian did considering what he was working with for much of his time in Knoxville.  But two things are clear for Tennessee's offense:  they want to go faster, and they want more big plays.

Last year the Vols ran 75.1 plays per game and finished 30th nationally in total snaps.  It was a vast improvement over 2013, when Tennessee ran just 67 plays per game and finished 108th in total snaps.  But playing faster didn't always mean playing better:  the Vols still had just 4.93 yards per play, 108th nationally and better than only Vanderbilt in the SEC.

Josh Dobbs was at the helm for Tennessee's three most productive outputs - South Carolina (6.79 ypp), Kentucky (6.39), and Iowa (6.32) - but Tennessee's efficiency was most impressive against the Hawkeyes.  In building a 42-7 lead, the Vols did the following:

  • 9 plays, 80 yards, 3:29, TD
  • 5 plays, 67 yards, 1:41, TD
  • 1 play, 49 yards, 0:13, TD
  • 8 plays, 62 yards, 3:23, TD
  • 3 plays, 2 yards, 1:24, punt
  • 9 plays, 75 yards, 3:22, TD
  • 5 plays, 24 yards, 1:47, punt
  • 9 plays, 75 yards, 3:13, TD
  • TOTAL:  49 plays, 434 yards, 42 points, 8.8 yards per play, 2.5 quarters
So it may not always look like this, but if the Vols can play even a little bit faster while playing a little bit better than the 5.67 yards per play they averaged in Dobbs' starts, Tennessee's offense could do some incredible things this fall.

The way Dobbs and Bajakian ran the offense late last season, you tend to remember big drives more than big plays.  The string of third down conversions against Alabama.  The final two drives at South Carolina.  Everything in that list from the Iowa game.  Tennessee's biggest moments weren't individual plays, but sustained efforts.

There is a significant and ongoing philosophy change in the Vol offense from the last time it was truly effective to this fall.  In 2012, armed with two NFL receivers and a tight end, an incredible offensive line, and Tyler Bray, the Vols were trying to score a touchdown on every snap.  Tennessee had 19 plays of 40+ yards in only 12 games in 2012, 15th nationally in that category.  Derek Dooley may have been wrong about a lot of things (and perhaps we should just give Jim Chaney the credit here and move on), but the idea that 8-10 play drives are hard to consistently execute without something going wrong has truth in it.  The 2012 offense wasn't looking for 10 play drives, they were looking for the end zone.

Fast forward to the end of last year and what we hope to see this fall, and it's a different picture.  In the Iowa massacre above, only one of Tennessee's six touchdowns in 49 plays came on a big play:  the trick play from Marlin Lane to Vic Wharton.  Everything else was a glimpse of what Butch and Bajakian (and we'll assume DeBord) wanted this offense to be:  fast and furious, exhausting a defense seven or eight yards at a time and then back to the line for another dose with the quickness.  Last fall the Vols had only seven plays of 40+ yards (117th nationally) and only 17 plays of 30+ yards (114th).  But in their most productive efforts against South Carolina, Kentucky, and Iowa, they didn't have to rely on the big strike to be incredibly successful.

More big plays wouldn't upset anyone, of course.  You can play fast and still play long:  Baylor still led the nation in 40+ yard plays with 28 in 13 games.  But if DeBord is truly in keeping with what Butch and Bajakian wanted to do, the Vols don't necessarily have to hit more home runs.  This is an offense built on speed, and the hope here is Iowa was the first real glimpse of what it can do.  Having a stronger offensive line can allow for more throws downfield - more on that later in our countdown - but if the Vols can simply get more of what they saw at the end of last year from their new offensive coordinator, I think everyone is going to be pleased with both Butch and DeBord.