On April 21st the Tennessee Volunteers wrapped up spring practice with their annual Orange and White game. Things were kept relatively vanilla from a schematic standpoint on both sides of the football, which is typical of this glorified scrimmage. The main goal is to install the basics, and evaluate individual performances with the added pressure of tens of thousands of fans in the stands. From an offensive perspective, despite the simplicity, there were many aspects to get excited about. It’s time to break down the new Tennessee offense and look ahead for what we can expect to see coming up in the fall!
First, it appears that new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton is willing to mix personnel groups, and formations, more than recent Tennessee offenses. Last season Tennessee was almost exclusively an 11 (one running back, one tight end) or 12 (one running back, two tight ends) personnel team. In addition, the tight ends were often positioned off the line of scrimmage as “H-Backs.”
Below is my count of the various personnel groups seen in the spring game and how frequently each group was utilized. I do want to stress that this is an unofficial count. It is my best estimation from watching the game, but there were a couple of occasions where it was difficult for me to be sure (i.e. cameras cutting back from an interview to game action with a play already in progress, or split screens in the broadcast that made it difficult to see numbers).
My expectation is that this graph will look a little more balanced during the regular season for a number of reasons. But, it seems pretty clear to me that Tennessee is most comfortable with 11-personnel in this new system. This makes a ton of sense considering the stable of running backs (Chandler, Jordan, and London), the talent returning at wide receiver (Callaway, Jennings, Johnson, and Palmer), and the incoming #1 JUCO tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson. Although I do expect Tennessee to be in 11-personnel for a majority of the offensive snaps again this season I anticipate that Coach Helton will be much more varied with his formations using this personnel group compared to previous seasons. Turn on any Tennessee game from 2017 and, if the Vols were in 11-personnel, this is what you saw:
Contrast that with some looks from the Vols in 11-personnel from the spring game where they show an in-line tight end, H-Back, and flexed tight end:
Keeping in mind that the spring game only shows the most basic form of the offense I feel confident that although the Vols may be in the 11-personnel package a majority of the time, like last season, we should look different. This should ultimately help make the offense less predictable and present a greater challenge to opposing defenses.
A second major change in personnel this season appears to be the incorporation of two running backs, and specifically a fullback. Recently it has been incredibly rare at Tennessee to see two running backs on the field at the same time, especially in the I-formation. Yet in the spring game this was the second most frequent personnel package. Because there isn’t a true fullback on the roster many tight ends were used to fill this role.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with the play of Austin Pope. Here is an example of Pope blocking in the run game from the fullback position. He does an excellent job on this weak-side iso play of getting leverage on Quart’e Sapp – possibly the Vols’ best defender during the spring game – with his helmet to the outside opening up a seam for Chandler.
Below is another example of Pope from the fullback position, this time in the passing game. He does a great job of selling the run by attacking the outside linebacker. Then he slips by, makes the catch, and is able to pick up yards after contact.
If Pope can play at a high level from the fullback and tight end positions I’m intrigued by the options it sets up for the offense in terms of shifting. For example, the Vols could line up in a two tight end set, shift to an I-formation with Wood-Anderson flexed out to the perimeter, and create some matchup problems for the defense. The use of the fullback is a welcome change for the Vols offensively and I will be interested to see if Pope is developed further in the fullback role.
A final point about offensive personnel is that Josh Palmer had a fantastic spring game. Also, Jordan Murphy has really developed as a receiver throughout spring practice. This could set up some dangerous 4 and 5 wide receiver combinations for Coach Helton to play with as well. Ultimately, Tennessee should look much more diverse offensively than they have in recent years.
The second offensive take-away I had was that Coach Helton will to do whatever it takes to move the ball. To illustrate what I mean it’s important to understand that Tennessee appears to be a zone-based running team. This is very similar to the previous offense. In a zone based scheme the line is moving as an entire unit and essentially blocking an area. Here is an example from the spring game:
You can see how the entire line is moving to the left and Jordan is able to slice through it for a nice run. Now, in years past Tennessee has stuck with this zone style of running (with the slight exception of some reads with Josh Dobbs) no matter what, and in my opinion this philosophy has made it difficult to score in goal line situations. Here are two examples that stand out – look away if you have a weak stomach!
In both examples Tennessee is in their 12-personnel package, attempting to run a zone style running play and come up without a touchdown. Next let’s look at an example from Tennessee in the spring game.
The Vols are in a 21-personnel package, and rather than running another zone play they run a gap scheme play called “Power.” With this play the play-side is blocking down, the fullback is kicking out the end, and the back-side guard is pulling for a linebacker.
Now, the Vols don’t score here, but they do pick up 3 yards, which is impressive considering the offense was outnumbered 9 defenders in the box to 7 available blockers. It also helps to set up a much easier 3rd & Goal. In a real game situation Guarantano might have easily checked to a fade to Callaway to take advantage of the one-on-one matchup outside. But the point is Coach Helton is willing to change it up from the preferred zone style to a more downhill, gap style of running in order to move the football and score. Here is another example of gap scheme running:
Unfortunately, I think the running back cuts it up a little early here, and there is a big play to be made if he follows his pullers toward the outside. However, I love the concept of mixing zone and gap schemes to be successful. Here is the last play that I want to touch on in terms of the Vols moving the football, a run-pass option (RPO)! RPO’s are a great way to make the defense wrong and pick up easy yards.
Above you can see McBride reading the linebacker following the run action. He pulls the ball and throws the slant. He was inaccurate which led to an incompletion here – something that McBride struggled with much of the spring game – but you can see where there is the potential to make easy throws and catches to move the football. I’m really excited about the new direction of the offense. It seems to me that we are moving away from an approach that relies on an “infallible system” to one that will move the football any way it can.
But who will be the signal caller with this new system? That brings me to my third observation from the spring game – the noticeable improvement of Jarrett Guarantano.
Jarrett was named MVP of the game for his performance, completing 15 of 27 passes for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns, and he managed to separate himself significantly from Will McBride on the depth chart. One aspect of Jarrett’s game that stood out was the velocity on his passes.
I question the route spacing here as the receivers seem way too close, but what an accurate laser by Guarantano. His 55% completion percentage for the game was a little on the low end, but this was due in part to a few drops and an incorrectly called incompletion to Palmer down the sideline (which was a dime after taking a huge hit on the previous play).
Although Guarantano played well overall there are still a couple of areas where I would like to see him improve in order to refine his game. The first area is using his legs more frequently. Below is an example of Jarrett doing a great job of stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush, then showing off his running ability.
Here is another example of Guarantano using his legs, again avoiding the rush but this time scrambling and completing a pass to Callaway on the sideline:
He has tremendous rushing abilities, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at his rushing yardage from last season – a disappointing -39 yards. This is mainly because in college football sack yardage counts toward rushing yardage and Guarantano struggled avoiding sacks last season. He was sacked 26 times on 139 passing attempts (an average of 5 passing attempts per sack!).
On the same drive as the above examples Jarrett also took two sacks, both coming from Kyle Phillips on the front side, with one coming inside of the final 2 minutes of the half. In 2018 I’ll be watching to see if Jarrett uses his natural rushing ability more frequently, ideally leading to fewer sacks and more plays like the above two examples.
I also think that Guarantano can improve as a quarterback by using his eyes to manipulate defenders. A good example of this comes late in the first quarter of the spring game. The Vols are running 4-verticals into what is essentially 3-deep, 3-underneath coverage with a 5-man rush. Here is the play in full:
You can see the safety sneaking down pre-snap and rushing along with the four defensive lineman immediately post snap.
Guarantano’s eyes quickly go to the two receiver side, and he throws to the outside receiver, Palmer, in the endzone. Ultimately it wasn’t a bad decision as the throw was far enough outside to his receiver in a one-on-one matchup with a cornerback. The ball was slightly under thrown, but still catchable.
However, this is what was happening on the backside of the play. The tight end, Eli Wolf, has a free release off the line of scrimmage and looks to be beyond Quart’e Sapp. I think there was potential on this play for Guarantano to manipulate the free safety with his eyes, pulling him down toward the two receivers to the bottom of the screen, and then coming back to an even more open Wolf.
Jarrett’s spring game performance cemented him clearly as the starting quarterback entering fall camp. However, he will face competition for this spot from graduate transfer Keller Chryst. Right now it is way too soon to predict which quarterback will win the job. What is clear is that Jarrett Guarantano has made huge strides in his game since last season, and if he continues to develop he could easily be the guy to lead the Vols into Charlotte on September 1st to take on the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Regardless of who the quarterback is when the Vols open 2018, he will need to be protected, which is something both the orange and white offenses struggled with at times during the spring game. The defense did blitz occasionally, but defensive line stunts were about as complex as the Vols really got in the spring game. A stunt is basically two defenders crossing, with one creating a pick for the other. Here are examples from both teams:
In each picture the red line indicates the shoulders of an offensive lineman turned following the defender. This defender is crashing into another offensive lineman, effectively occupying two blockers while the other defender loops around. Below are gifs of each play, and while both quarterbacks were able to get the ball off in time the both would have taken a major hit at the very least if this were game action:
Fortunately for the Vols offense, both Trey Smith and Chance Hall seem on track to return this coming fall. Also, Tennessee appears to be in play for Alabama graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy, assuming Alabama will not be allowed to block his transfer to SEC schools.
Adding these players would go a very long way to improving the technique and depth available on the offensive line. Given the important pieces missing I wouldn’t say protecting the quarterback is a major concern just yet, but it’s definitely something Vols fans should keep an eye on once the real games begin.
That wraps up the offensive break down of the Vols spring game! Let me know what you think about the Vols O in the comments or over on Twitter at @Power_T_Tape. Also, be on the lookout for the defensive break down – coming soon!