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Tennessee vs. ETSU Film Study

What Can We Take Away From Saturday’s Win?

NCAA Football: East Tennessee State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

As we all saw on Saturday, the Tennessee Volunteers rebounded from their week one loss in a major way. The team came out in their home opener and absolutely obliterated East Tennessee State University, 59-3.

Thankfully, for everyone between Knoxville and Johnson City, Randy Sanders did not have to strip naked.

It was nice to see Tennessee impose it’s will on an inferior opponent, something fans haven’t seen since the 2016 season. There wasn’t a whole lot going on from a schematic perspective in this game, which is to be expected. Tennessee has a huge conference opener at home against the Florida Gators in about two weeks, and it would serve the team well to not give away any tendencies or strategy. With that being said, there are still a couple of take aways from the ETSU game that are very intriguing.

The Dime Package

“Dime” is a defensive personnel group used to indicate six defensive backs on the field. This is generally used in passing situations, as the defense can use six defensive backs to cover the offense’s five eligible receivers. Tennessee has used this look a lot in the first two games of the 2018 season. The core group of defensive backs has remained relatively unchanged between weeks one and two. However, it seems as though some tweaks have occurred with the look up-front from this personnel package.

The above are three examples from the West Virginia game in week one. Up front we have some bigger bodies. In all examples the line consists of Kongbo, Johnson Jr., Phillips, and D. Taylor. One middle linebacker remained in the game, while the other was taken off the field and replaced by the sixth defensive back. It is important to note that this isn’t always the personnel Tennessee used when playing in the “Dime” package against West Virginia, but it seemed to be frequent.

In the examples above we were not able to get much of a push up front, and Will Grier was able to get the ball out very quickly. Defensively, Tennessee is still experimenting with ways to get pressure on the quarterback. Here is an adjustment Tennessee made in week two.

Phillips and Johnson Jr. remain in the game as defensive linemen. In addition, Both middle linebackers, in this case Bituli and Kirkland Jr., remain in the game. This is also the case for the outside linebacker, Darrell Taylor. A defensive lineman (Shy Tuttle, in the above example) was taken out of the game in order to add the 6th defensive back, which on Saturday happened to be Alontae Taylor. Alontae then went to cornerback and bumped Baylen Buchanan, who was one of the starting corners Saturday, to the “Money” position. Therefore, the Vols are basically in a ‘2-3-6’ in terms of defensive personnel.

Here is another example from Saturday’s game:

Again, only two defensive linemen are in the play. Rather than leaving both middle linebackers on the field like the previous example, one middle linebacker comes off the field. Then, the “Money” defender (Buchanan) was added as the sixth defensive back, and the Vols bring in an additional outside linebacker. The Vols are again in the ‘2-3-6’ alignment, although the linebacker personnel (outside linebackers versus inside linebackers) differed in both examples.

Now, you could argue that this isn’t too different from the examples against West Virginia depending on if you consider Jonathan Kongbo’s position a defensive end (lineman) or outside linebacker. If you think of him more as an outside linebacker, then technically the Vols were also in a ‘2-3-6’ in the examples from the West Virginia game. Given his skill set as primarily a “hand on the ground” edge rusher I consider him more of a defensive lineman. However, this nuance isn’t particularly important.

What is important is that Tennessee is committed to putting more athletic players on the field with their Dime package when they are expecting a pass. We see smaller guys like Deandre Johnson and Jordan Allen (both about 6’3” and 245pounds). Part of this is simply substituting early and often to get game repetitions and build depth. But, given the lack of pass rush generated recently, it would not surprise me to see a trend toward some of these smaller guys going in on obvious passing downs. All options should be on the table at this point, because it is very concerning that we had just as many sacks (1) as ETSU did on Saturday.

Another important take-away from the ETSU game was that the ‘Money’ defender was aligned in the box. The alignment is visible in both pictures from the ETSU game, but the last image with the endzone angle is the best example of the ‘Money’ player’s alignment. Buchanan is walked into the box and looks almost like a middle linebacker. Compare that alignment to his alignment in the images from the West Virginia game. In that game he had been primarily lining up more in the slot position. The coaches were also not afraid to send him on an interior blitz from this alignment.

On the above play this interior blitz wasn’t especially effective. However, there were six offensive linemen to block only three rushers. The defense won’t win that match-up too often. Buchanan was effective as a coverage player from the ‘Money’ alignment throughout Saturday’s game. He was also in the mix in run support, although he needs to make the tackle in this example:

It will be interesting to watch Tennessee in the Dime package moving forward against more challenging competition. Hopefully this turns into one of many options Coach Pruitt and the rest of the defensive staff can use to apply pressure to the quarterback while staying sound in coverage.

Offensive Concerns

It seems strange to bring up concerns about the offense following a game when the Vols scored 59 points. The reason for this is because there are still some problems noticed in the West Virginia game that weren’t exactly corrected against ETSU. Most notably, Tennessee still struggled with their preferred style of zone running plays. Here is an example from the Vols second offensive series of the game:

No one is getting to the strong-side linebacker who has a free shot at the running back. Also, the right guard is unable to prevent the defensive tackle from crossing his face and getting in on the tackle. It’s one thing to see that from your first-string offensive line against a Top-25 team, but it’s another thing entirely to see that against an FCS opponent. Here is an additional illustration of a similar issue:

ETSU’s defensive tackles are again able to get across the face of the Vols’ guards and disrupt the play, causing a tackle for a loss.

It needs to be said that there were some very encouraging moments from the Vols offense during the ETSU game. Deep throws down the field, downhill running from freshman running back Jeremy Banks, and creative wrinkles like this unbalanced formation used on Josh Palmer’s jet-sweep touchdown run to name a few. But protecting the quarterback and establishing the zone run remain areas that need to be refined. Luckily the Vols have one more game to get things ironed out up front before conference play.