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Tennessee’s Passing Game Takes Shape

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Productive starts by a pair of wide receivers and a greener light downfield for Josh Dobbs have given Tennessee a much more dangerous offense.

Florida v Tennessee Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The complaints were common: can’t throw it deep, don’t have a number one receiver.

The opposite is not the story I thought I’d be writing after the Vols played Florida, but it’s Wednesday and we haven’t woken up yet so I’m just going to keep pressing these keys.

Last year Tennessee landed only 36 passing plays of 20+ yards, 76th nationally. This year, through four games and no cupcakes, the Vols have landed 13 plays of 20+ yards through the air. The current pace would give Tennessee six more explosive passing plays than last year.

It may not sound like a lot; Tennessee is never going to lead anything in explosive passing plays under Butch Jones and Mike DeBord. But even a small increase in the downfield passing game can become a significant increase for the offense overall: force defenses to respect it, and the running game can bust open like we saw on Tennessee’s final scoring drive against the Gators.

How is the 2016 passing game different than last year? It’s not the attempts: last year Josh Dobbs averaged 26.5 attempts per game, this year he’s at 26.75. And it’s not as if the Vols suddenly quit throwing to their backs: Alvin Kamara is getting 15.7% of the team’s targets through the first month of the season, even higher than his SEC-leading 12.6% last year. Add in Jalen Hurd and the Vols still throw to their backs more than 20% of the time.

Last year Von Pearson was Tennessee’s most productive wide receiver, Pig Howard the year before. Both of those guys operated out of the slot, where Howard in particular proved you can still put up big numbers. It’s why some of us expected a big leap from Josh Smith this fall, though an ankle injury has kept him from being 100%.

Instead, Josh Malone helped answer both the big play and the number one receiver questions.

Last fall Tennessee was one of two SEC teams to have their number one wide receiver (Pearson) be targeted on less than 20% of pass attempts. In four games this year Malone has emerged as the clear number one: Dobbs looks his way 21.6% of the time, and he’s responded with 13 catches for 287 yards and five touchdowns. Malone’s 13.1 yards per target are third best among SEC receivers with 20+ targets on the year, and he is one of just 15 players nationally with 5+ touchdown receptions. His next touchdown will give him more than any Butch Jones player has recorded in a single season in Knoxville.

An interesting and mostly forgotten point on Malone: he was relatively strong when paired with Justin Worley in the first half of 2014. As a true freshman he caught 19 passes for 209 yards in Tennessee’s first seven games. When the Vols made the switch to Dobbs Tennessee’s offense clicked, but not through the vertical passing game. In the last six games Malone caught four passes for 22 yards. Then last year Malone couldn’t follow one strong performance with another: five catches for 60 yards in the win over Georgia, then only two catches at Alabama. Four catches for 103 at Kentucky, including a 75-yard touchdown, then zero the next week against South Carolina.

But this year Malone has been consistently great. He helped save the Vols against Appalachian State and spark them against Virginia Tech. Against Ohio a big day (five for 69 and two scores) could have been even bigger, and he had two enormous plays in the midst of Tennessee’s second half blitz of Florida.

With Malone firmly established as Tennessee’s number one option, Jauan Jennings has also emerged to help ensure Malone can’t attract too much attention from opposing defenses. Jennings has caught nine of the eleven passes thrown his way, with plenty of acrobatics involved. He averages 12.9 yards per target and could be one of the final pieces of the puzzle for this offense.

As we said all off-season, this system didn’t need an overhaul. The Vols still have a dynamic running presence with Dobbs, Hurd, and Kamara. They’re still quite good at involving Kamara and the tight ends in the passing game, and I wouldn’t at all give up on a slot option like Tyler Byrd playing a bigger role going forward. But this offense needed options it could trust on either side, something to give DeBord and Dobbs permission to try. And with Malone and Jennings, it’s worked: though he’s thrown as many interceptions in four games as he did all of last year, Dobbs has also fired 10 touchdowns (15 all of last year) and increased his yards per attempt from 6.7 to 7.5. And he’s done so in part against pass defenses from Virginia Tech and Florida that could still finish the season among the nation’s best.

Is there an argument here to say all of this has happened because the Vols were down 13-21 points in three of their first four games? Maybe. But I didn’t have much of a problem with Tennessee’s game plan against the Hokies or the Gators early on, the Vols simply failed to execute via offensive line and drops. Perhaps we’ll get to see this kind of success in the passing game in the first quarter going forward.

The offense must continue to evolve for the Vols to continue to win. But the emergence of Malone and Jennings and the permission they’ve granted Dobbs (or vice versa) has paid off in a big way for Tennessee’s offense thus far, and now forces a team like Georgia to account for so much more.