The Jeremy Pruitt era is officially underway in Knoxville. It’s not the start many expected, and certainly not the result anyone wearing orange was hoping for. But, to the first year head coach’s credit he made absolutely no excuses. He said that West Virginia played a better game than the Volunteers. He took ownership of the loss, which is what a head coach is supposed to do (even though I don’t particularly think there was much to blame on him).
Then, towards the end of his opening remarks he made this statement: “We can sit here and waller in it, or we can figure out a way to make us better. I think that’s what our guys will try to do.”
So the question naturally is — how? What went wrong in the West Virginia game, and how does it get corrected going forward? Where can the Vols stand to get better? Let’s take a closer look.
Lack Of A Deep Threat
Tennessee’s offense was expected to be one that wasn’t afraid take shots down the field. At a national signing day celebration back in February of this year offensive coordinator Tyson Helton said, “You’ve got to make everybody in the stands stand up, take a deep breath and go, ‘Oh my God.’ Whether we catch it or not, we’re throwing that sucker down there.” When you consider this quote along with Helton’s coaching mentors, and the abundance of talented Receivers the Vols returned for 2018, it was reasonable to assume the Vols would emphasize stretching the field vertically.
However, during the game, the Vols didn’t really stretch the field vertically at all. Jarrett Guarantano’s longest completion traveled only 14 yards (there were two such passes) beyond the line of scrimmage prior to being caught (see below).
It’s easy to look back at the game on Sunday or Monday and say “the offense should have done this differently.” The game plan centered around clock control with the run and short, low-risk passing was totally fine and at times very effective. But, the treat of throwing the ball deep was noticeably absent. Tennessee took just two deep shots down the field, and both times there were plays to be made.
On the first example Jarrett gets a ton of blind-side pressure from a blitz. He manages to get rid of the ball just before getting leveled, leading to an inaccurate pass. It is clear that Johnson has a step on his defender and an opportunity for a big play was available. In the second example Jarrett has more time. He puts it up in zone coverage to Palmer and is actually able to complete the pass, only slightly out of bounds.
Guarantano’s offseason development as a passer was evident. He was mostly accurate and didn’t turn the ball over. The worst thing you can say about Guarantano from Saturday is that he was conservative, but that isn’t necessarily his fault.
Maybe there are still accuracy concerns down the field that made the offensive staff hesitant to call more deep passes. However, Coach Helton even said it himself, Tennessee needs to threaten deep whether we catch it or not. Doing so will soften coverages, and may even lead to more favorable numbers in the box when the Vols want to run. Will the Vols offense be significantly better with a more vertical threat? I don’t know. I’d like to think so. We won’t know until we start ‘throwing that sucker down there.’
Part of improving is making good in-game adjustments. It’s been a long time since a Tennessee team went into the half and fans felt relatively confident about the coaching adjustments that would take place in the locker room, if any. Credit should definitely be given to Coach Helton, Coach Friend, and the rest of the offensive staff for their scheme adjustments, which helped get the offense going a little more in the second half.
The Vols want to be an offense that is committed to establishing the running game. It appears that their preference is to be primarily zone-scheme, but they aren’t shy about running a gap-scheme if the situation calls for it. The new look Vols want to pound the rock, and against a smaller West Virginia defensive line it appeared we had a major advantage in this area. But, the Mountaineers really challenged the Vols up front with their speed out of their uncommon 3-3-5 stack alignment.
In the first half, when the Vols were trying to run their base zone play, it seemed to me like they were asking the center to get to the middle linebacker and the guards to reach the nose tackle.
But, as we all saw, it wasn’t very pretty. The guards were unable to get to the agile nose tackles, who were able to penetrate and cause havoc in the backfield. This was a problem for the Vols for the entire first half, and kept them behind the chains.
Rather than go away from this play altogether, the coaches adjusted. This is an essential play for the Vols offense. It has to work. What was clear in the first half was that the players were not in the best position to be successful on this particular play. On the Vols very first play in the second half you can see how things were different.
The backside guard, rather than being asked to get to the nose tackle, was sent up to the will linebacker. The playside guard and tackle work a double team up to the sam linebacker. The fullback is asked to lead through the hole to the middle linebacker. And most importantly, the center stays to secure the nose tackle.
Now, was it a great block by the center? Not really. But, he does just enough to wall off the nose. The running back is able to make a read, plant, and hit his hole hard instead of being bottled up by backfield penetration and pursuit. All seven box defenders are accounted for, and we have a successful first down play that sets up a manageable 2nd and short.
An additional adjustment was to run this play in an I-Formation out of 20 personnel. The third receiver in the formation kept the defense spread out to defend a potential pass, instead of a tight end lined up on the line which would have drawn in an extra defender. With our five linemen and one fullback against their three linemen and three linebackers we had the numbers advantage. Again, the center took care of the nose, the fullback got to the linebacker, and Tennesse made some great runs.
Other adjustments were made, but in my opinion this is definitely the most noteworthy. Of course there are things to improve upon, especially from a player execution standpoint. But, I think Vols fans should be encouraged by what they saw from the coaches at halftime. This staff understands the importance of putting players in positions to be successful, and that is a huge encouragement moving forward.
- Utilizing Ty Chandler
Unfortunately, Ty Chandler was knocked out of the game against WVU with a concussion. Currently he is listed on the injury report as “day-to-day” and it is unclear when he will make his return. In the meantime, Tim Jordan and Madre London appear to be capable of filling in at running back. Tim Jordan looked especially promising, forcing 12 missed tackles en route to a 118 yard day and almost 6 yards per carry on average.
Ty Chandler will eventually return, and that will create a (good) problem. Does he immediately slide right back to his starting role? If that happens, does Tim Jordan immediately turn into a back-up? Both players are extremely talented, and seen deserving of starting reps. In order to utilize both players I think a great compromise is to use 20 and 21 personnel heavily, and put both Jordan and Chandler in the backfield as opposed to a fullback.
I know, we are all excited for the fullback to return to Tennessee football. But, we don’t have a true fullback on the roster right now. The reality is our most talented skill players are our running backs, wide receivers, and Dominick Wood-Anderson.
Although this is the play that Chandler was injured on, he shows how dangerous he can be in the receiving game. He catches the ball 7-yards behind the line of scrimmage and turns it into a 6-yard gain.
Offensively, you want to be able to threaten every area of the field. By aligning in the shotgun, with Chandler and Jordan on either side of Guarantano in a two-back formation, we present a lot of problems to the defense. We can cause a horizontal stretch passing with swing passes like the one above. This effectively serves as an outside running play. We can stretch the field vertically with our Receivers and with Wood-Anderson. We still have the downhill running game with either back. Obviously this is different from what Tennessee ultimately wants to run offensively. However, for this year, it seems like a great option to get our best players on the field and playing to their strengths.
I was asked on Twitter following the game if what we saw on Saturday was correctable? My answer, in short, was that it is all correctable. The thing is, some aspects will take longer than others.
- Physicality and Tackling
Physicality and tackling is something that the Vols defense struggled with all last season. After the first game of the 2018 season we can safely say there is still a long way to go in this department. The best example of this comes on West Virginia’s second drive of the second half. They ran a draw play against our dime package, which was a great call. It’s not necessarily that this play went for a lot of yards that is concerning, but the way that the Vols finish this play.
About 4 players are in on the tackle at the very end of the run, and the defenders still struggled to bring down the West Virginia runner. There a few things we could talk about on this play, but the fact is it starts and ends with being physical and using good technique to tackle. On this play, and throughout the game, West Virginia just played a more physical style of football. Even when the players where in the right spot to make a play the tackling was suspect.
To be successful these kind of plays need to be four yard losses, not three yard gains. On this next play there was great pursuit that was able to secure the tackle for loss. Credit to the defense for running to the football and never giving up. However, when players are in the position to make the play, they need to secure the tackle.
With where things are currently at it is unlikely that Tennessee will suddenly turn into a superior tackling team. However, with personnel adjustments and a focus on fundamentals the Vols can hopefully turn around the tackling and physical play relatively quickly. This won’t solve all of the problems, but it will definitely help.
- Generating Pressure
The defense definitely lacked the ability to get a consistent pass rush throughout the game on Saturday. This is a bigger issue, and one that will be more difficult to overcome this season. Being able to generate a pass rush with four defenders means you can remain sound against the pass with seven defenders assigned to the offense’s five eligible receivers. Against the Tennessee four man pressures West Virginia seemed unfazed. Will Grier had pockets like this to throw in seemingly all day.
In my opinion Tennessee had the most success at pressuring the quarterback, strangely, in their dime package with six defensive backs on the field. Here is an example on 3rd and 11 in the first half, on West Virginia’s drive following Tennessee’s touchdown.
The rushing defenders (yellow) are able to confuse the offensive line and give the linebacker a free run at Grier. Unfortunately the linebacker is unable to make the play and flushes Grier to his right. The QB spy on the play (blue) got too close to the line of scrimmage and was a step slow at getting to Grier once he was flushed. The defenders in man coverage (red) were able to do a great job on this extended play and contribute to an incompletion. As we mentioned above, tackling needs to improve, and when the defense has the chance to make a big sack on 3rd down it needs to capitalize. But this was at least a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback. We’ll need a lot more of this as the season progresses.
Tennessee did bring five defenders on a rush occasionally, but it wasn’t especially helpful. We weren’t able to generate much more pressure than when we rushed four players, and one less defensive back in coverage made us more vulnerable to the pass.
Getting a pass rush will be a huge problem all season long. This is a problem that is ultimately solved through recruiting and development. Along the defensive line there was some improvement in the run game, especially with Shy Tuttle and Alexis Johnson Jr. But, right now, we don’t have the pass rushers that we need. If we bring a fifth defender we leave our defensive backs a little less protected. Essentially, damned if you do bring pressure, damned if you don’t.
One way to solve this is to present complicated looks to the offense. Ideally, this causes some confusion along the offensive line, and allows the defense to play a step ahead. The dime package with walked up safeties and linebackers seen above isn’t incredibly complex, but it’s at least different. I’ll be watching closely during the Florida game and beyond to see if we start to present a lot more complicated fronts to confuse the offense. It isn’t the long-term solution, but it might help us do enough to get pressure on the quarterback this season.
- Freshmen DB’s: The Ups and Downs of Man Coverage
What was especially clear from the first game is that Tennessee is going play their young guys. Tennessee started two true freshman, and three if you consider Bryce Thompson as the sixth defender coming in with the dime package. After re-watching my rough estimate is that Tennessee played about 60%/40% man coverage compared to zone coverage. These young defenders were locked up on very talented and experienced receivers from West Virginia.
The player who probably did it best was Alontae Taylor. West Virginia actually avoided his side much of the game and took advantage of other areas. When Taylor was tested the pass either fell incomplete (as in the GIF above with Grier flushed out of the pocket) or the receiver was quickly tackled or forced out of bounds. He was a major bright spot, and it’s easy to see why the coaching staff was so excited about him through the spring and fall camps.
The other players, however, struggled with man coverage. Here is an example of Thompson. He is actually in decent position when the ball is caught.
It’s not great, but again it’s Thompson’s first ever game and he’s facing a very talented receiver. If Thompson secures the tackle here the Vols force a 3-and-out on West Virginia’s opening drive of the second half. Unfortunately, he misses and this goes for a big gain. Does that mean Thompson is a bad player? Of course not. By the end of the year he probably makes this tackle. By next year he might break up the pass. But, this is the kind of thing that happens with new players in a new system against a very talented offense.
The thing is, it wasn’t just the young guys. Sure, Trevon Flowers got beat for a touchdown. But so did starting junior safety Nigel Warrior.
Tennessee also had a miscommunication that allowed a running back to wheel out of the backfield uncovered for the touchdown.
The only way to fix this, really, is with game repetitions. This is what will take the most time. Our younger players are probably our best coverage players. They have to play. The solution isn’t just to throw other players in their and see what happens. The problem is, they’re just young and no amount of practice will make them redshirt juniors. I expect Tennessee to stick with this talented group of freshman throughout the year. I thought it was telling that Coach Pruitt stuck with them throughout the West Virginia game, despite the outcome being decided well before the final whistle. The young defensive backs will have some bumps in the road, but overall they’ll be better for it. They already have their most difficult game out of the way (with Alabama as a close second). It might be hard to watch at times, but just remember, they’re growing. Give it time, “trust the process,” and in a couple years we might just be pretty good in the secondary.