Here’s how Tennessee’s top receivers have stacked up on the SEC leaderboard in Butch Jones’ three years:
Receptions Per Game
- 2013: Pig Howard, 3.7, 18th
- 2014: Pig Howard, 4.2, 7th
- 2015: Von Pearson, 2.9, 21st
Receiving Yards Per Game
- 2013: Marquez North, 45.1, 26th
- 2014: Pig Howard, 47.5, 17th
- 2015: Von Pearson, 31.5, 30th
- 2013: Pig Howard, 3, T-31st
- 2014: Von Pearson, 5, T-14th
- 2015: Alvin Kamara & Von Pearson, 3, T-23rd
Last year the Vols didn’t have a single player average three catches or 35 yards per game. Pearson was much stronger from October onward after being away from the team most of the off-season, catching 35 balls for 352 yards in Tennessee’s last nine games. If you take Pearson’s last nine games of 2015, Pig Howard’s 2014 season (54 for 618), and Marquez North’s first ten injury-free games of 2013 (38 for 496), the Vols have done a decent job establishing a primary option under Butch Jones. Transitioning from Justin Worley to Josh Dobbs while dealing with a totally raw offensive line in 2014 were additional factors beyond any receiver’s control.
So perhaps our concern is less in finding a great number one option, and more in figuring out if we can put a really good rotation of 3-4 on the field. But when we again compare Tennessee’s productivity at receiver to the rest of the league among number one options, the Vols stand out in a couple of ways.
Using target rate (found via each team’s advanced statistical profile at Football Study Hall), here’s how often each team’s number one option was thrown to last season in the SEC:
|South Carolina||Pharoh Cooper||32.4%|
|Texas A&M||Christian Kirk||28.2%|
|Ole Miss||Laquon Treadwell||26.2%|
|Mississippi State||Fred Ross||24.8%|
So it’s easy to look at that chart and make this question all about Tennessee’s need for a better number one option. But all those balls that didn’t go to the primary option did go somewhere else. And in UT’s case it wasn’t into an overstuffed group of receivers in need of someone to emerge. Instead the Vols led the league in throwing to their running backs, sending more than one in five pass attempts their way:
|Team||RB Target Rate|
If you had Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, the latter of which led all SEC backs in target rate at 12.6%, you might throw them the ball a lot too.
Should we expect this to be much different in 2016? It’s easy to take all this data and pile it on to the risk management narrative. But it’s also ridiculous to expect or want Tennessee to completely change their offense or even their passing game when the Vols were so close to glory last fall. This is a system that needs tweaks, not an overhaul. And those tweaks most specifically should come in a desire to create big plays downfield in the passing game, which we’ll get to in our countdown.
But within those tweaks, will the Vols throw to their backs less? Will a true number one option emerge at receiver? Last fall the Vols had eight different receivers with a target rate of 5% or greater (roughly being thrown the ball at least once per game). Only Auburn had more in the SEC with nine; the league average was 6.7 and Alabama led the way with only five players being targeted 5% or more. The Vols are throwing a number of talented newcomers in the mix. Will this make it more or less likely the Vols have more separation at the top?
Two players to watch in my opinion: Ethan Wolf, who led Tennessee’s top pass catchers with 9.4 yards per target last fall, and Preston Williams, who led the Vols overall in that stat in limited action with 9.9 yards per target. The Vols have a dynamic running game, a brilliant running quarterback, and enough options to spread a defense extraordinarily thin. I think Wolf is the player most likely to benefit from those holes in a defense, and Williams is the player most likely to become the top answer downfield.
But I also don’t think it’s a bad answer if the Vols decide to continue to feed Hurd and Kamara in as many ways as possible. Leonard Fournette was just behind Kamara in target rate among SEC backs last year despite the fact that the Tigers had a clear number one option at receiver in Malachi Dupre. Why did they still throw it to Leonard Fournette so much? Because he’s Leonard Fournette. It’s a good idea to get your best players the ball in as many ways as possible.
Tennessee’s passing game looked different than the rest of the SEC last fall, but the offense certainly isn’t broken. How Dobbs, DeBord, and the Vols choose to spread out their receiving options this fall will be fascinating to watch, but I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer on the table.