During the course of this off-season we’ve tried to refocus the conversation on Josh Dobbs and Tennessee’s passing game. The Vols certainly don’t need to change their offensive identity and start chucking it all over the place while they’ve got Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara at their disposal. And saying, “We should throw it deep more!” is oversimplification.
There are a handful of noteworthy areas we’ve looked at when discussing Tennessee’s passing game:
- Josh Dobbs was the SEC’s best quarterback on third down last year. On 3rd and 4-9 yards to gain Dobbs attempted 68 passes and the Vols picked up 34 first downs, the only QB in the league to successfully convert 50% of attempts from that range.
- But the Vols were next-to-last in the SEC in passing yards per attempt on first down. This represents significant missed opportunity for a team who ran it 73% of the time on first down and still picked up more than five yards per carry, forcing defenses to expect the run on first down even more.
- 1998 taught us you can win championships with an uneven passing game if you can make up the difference in big plays. Those Vols had 13 touchdowns of 25+ yards against their nine toughest opponents. Last year Tennessee had just 24 plays of 30+ yards overall, 82nd nationally.
- One reason the Vols struggle with big plays and consistency at receiver: Tennessee threw to its running backs more than any team in the SEC last year. A dozen SEC schools had a primary receiver targeted on at least 20% of their passes last fall; Von Pearson led Tennessee in target rate at just 15.4%. The Vols targeted running backs with 21% of their passes, including 12.6% to Alvin Kamara to lead all SEC backs.
Dobbs is better in the clutch than the general conversation gives him credit for, stretching all the way back to South Carolina in 2014 and highlighted by his numbers on third down last year. “I’m gonna need to see Dobbs make clutch throws” is nonsense.
At the same time, Tennessee’s offense clearly has room to grow in explosiveness. Last year the Vol offense ranked 81st in that category in Football Study Hall’s five factors, the lowest ranking for either side of the ball. There appears to be a significant opportunity to cash in on first down with what should be an even more historic and threatening ground game.
When you think about last year, how many big pass plays do you remember? When we counted down the Top 25 plays of the 2015 regular season in December, only nine of them were explosive offensive plays. And of that group, two were trick plays at Florida and four others were long runs. The only standout explosive pass plays from last season were the 75-yarder from Dobbs to Malone at Kentucky (featuring incredible work by Dobbs in the pocket), the two completions on the go-ahead drive at Alabama (which we listed together in our countdown), and the fourth down score to Josh Smith against Georgia (which was easily the biggest play of the year).
How is Team 120 best equipped to be more explosive in the passing game? Between improvement from Dobbs on deeper passes, even more opportunities for Hurd and Kamara in the passing game, and the emergence of a reliable option downfield (Preston Williams?), there could be a number of answers to this question. And Tennessee is dynamic enough for those answers to change in some ways based on the opponent.
If we wake up on an early December morning to find Tennessee playing for the SEC Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff, I don’t think it will have happened because Dobbs morphed into the SEC’s passing leader. I do think we’ll be talking about the emergence of at least one downfield threat, more memorable and explosive plays on offense, and a less predictable and even more dangerous offense.
And here again, consider the nature of the questions we’re asking. In years past, for Tennessee to have a successful season there were massive unknowns and we needed all of them to break right. In 2016, the biggest on-the-field question for Tennessee to answer is if its passing game can make minor adjustments with clear opportunity to do so, some of which may simply come in the natural progression of its components. If the passing game just takes one step forward in explosiveness and the Vols can put the elite rushing attack and elite defense we think they have on the field alongside it? We’re going to like our answers.
10 Questions for 2016
#10: Will any freshmen make an immediate impact?
#8: Malik Foreman & Rashaan Gaulden Step Into the Spotlight
#6: How good can the defensive line be?
#5: Who will Dobbs throw to most often?
#4: Who starts at offensive tackle? (and then Chance Hall got hurt, so...)