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Trench Warfare: How Tennessee’s offensive and defensive lines improved, and if it will stay that way

A shift in play calling tendencies, player development, and other revelations.

NCAA Football: Akron at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Games are won in the trenches. Yes, you may have heard your father, or your grandfather, or millions of sports fans, repeat that age old wisdom. But hear me out for a second. What if…they’re correct?

It doesn’t take an NFL scout to look at the 7-0 Tennessee Volunteers and deduce that they are getting good performances from their offensive and defensive lines. When an offense has scored 38+ points in six of its seven games, and no opponent has averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry, it’s understood.

Readers may recognize that I love to do the Stat Dive articles, where I look at some advanced analytics to help gauge the offensive and defensive lines. Today, I’m taking a step back and looking at the big picture. I wanted to know: How much have the Volunteers improved in the trenches? We’ve got the numbers from last season, and we are now far enough into the year that we can feel fairly confident about what both sides of the line will bring.

I’ve got the numbers below that shed light on where exactly Tennessee improved and maybe even declined. We’ve also got some reasons and theories about why that is.

I apologize in advance for how many disclaimers and notes this piece has. So here’s our first one.

Note: The numbers that you see in the piece do not include the UT-Martin game. These were grabbed before Saturday. I know that might seem like an unfair practice, but I simply think it is a better, more accurate depiction of the lines. It would be fine for a Stat Dive article, since in those pieces I am comparing two teams who have both had cupcakes on their schedule. But for a piece dedicated to solely looking at Tennessee’s offensive and defensive lines, I’d prefer the numbers that weren’t inflated by an FCS opponent.

Offensive Line

Here’s the reminder on the Football Outsiders stats. If you aren’t sure what the terms mean, they have a neat little explainer.

I think the most telling number here isn’t the sack rate—which is notable in of itself—I think it’s the power success rate. I bang on this drum a bunch for the Stat Dive series. Power success rate is, in my opinion, a great indicator of your line’s true potential. Can your guys win a one-on-one when they need it the most? Can they overpower the guy across from them and get the yards they need?

Some concern may be had over the standard down line YPC. Basically, it’s suggesting that Tennessee is not as effective running the ball in certain situations. I think this is a product of some of Tennessee’s early down runs that occur. Those have not been particularly efficient so far (although still being in the top 50 is a solid mark). The power success rate would also indicate that the offensive line can deliver on known running downs.

What’s different from last year?

Changes on the offensive line

Firstly, Gerald Mincey’s transfer proved to be a bigger deal than initially thought. Mincey performed well enough in camp to win the starting left tackle spot outright. He’s started in five games and has been essential in keeping Hendon Hooker upright on his blindside. Mincey winning the starting job also allowed tackle Jeremiah Crawford to find a role as a “sixth man” of sorts. When Mincey was out for the LSU game, Crawford stepped in and performed very well. Both played in the Alabama game as well. Having not one, but two legitimate starters there is a giant safety blanket. A lot of teams wish they could have just one.

Tennessee’s offensive line was actually good at run blocking last year, but had issues in pass protection. Some of those have been cleaned up thanks to an amazing year by Hooker. Hooker had a slight tendency to stay in the pocket long after he should’ve bailed/thrown it away. But make no mistake, the Volunteers legitimately improved when it came to blocking. You don’t see nearly as many free rushers as you did last season. They communicate better, they don’t get pushed back from the line of scrimmage, everything. Coach Glen Elarbee is an unsung hero of the coaching staff for what he’s accomplished.

To begin the season, we were asking if the interior offensive line was a disappointment. In the first few games, Tennessee really wasn’t able to dominate on the ground like we were used to seeing. What seems to have changed the last few games is that the Volunteers are spreading out defenses with the pass before going to the run. There are some very tired clichés about setting up the run to open up the passing lanes. But that can work both ways. Tennessee seems to believe—with good reason—that they are more effective when becoming a pass-first team.

Here’s some more numbers to chew on. In the first three FBS games of the year, Tennessee averaged 4.3, 5.3, and 2.6 yards per carry. In the last three, Tennessee has averaged 5.4, 5.4, and 4.7 yards per carry. You’re reading that right: Tennessee’s run game looked better against Florida, LSU, and Alabama, compared to Ball State, Pittsburgh, and Akron.

Slight changes in philosophy?

Note: I attempted to remove some of the noise from the numbers for Hooker’s section. Essentially, I removed games against non-Power 5 opponents. I realize that in the FCS and non-P5 opponent games, Tennessee’s run/pass numbers were skewed. Mainly because they would go up by so many points that they would just run the ball out to kill the clock. I may have missed a few subtractions or additions here and there, but the numbers largely stayed in the same ballpark.

I also decided to run the numbers and see if there was a change in play calling philosophy from Tennessee. Here’s what I noticed: While Tennessee is still running the ball a majority of the time, they have undergone a slight shift towards the pass.

Last year with Hooker, Tennessee ran the ball about 60% of the time. They are now running it around 56% of the time. It’s a small change, but it extrapolates to a noticeable difference. Think about it like this: If you applied this season’s percentage split to last season, it results in around 28 more pass attempts for Hooker. That’s around a full game worth of pass attempts.

I also noticed that Hooker is running a little less this year. Last season against Power 5 competition (10 total contests), Hooker had 151 rushing attempts for 535 yards and three touchdowns. That averages out to about 15 attempts per game. Halfway through the 2022 season, Hooker has just 54 rushing attempts against Power 5 opponents (four total contests). That registers to about 13.5 attempts per game.

Defensive Line

Note: I’m sorry, I know, I keep doing this. It should be noted that the defensive line stats are going to be “noisier” than the offensive line stats. The obvious reason is because the defensive linemen are not the only ones who can sack the quarterback or run down the ball carrier. Now that being said, you do not achieve the numbers Tennessee has achieved without a good defensive line. I would just caution interpreting the numbers as solely a product of the defensive line performance.

The jumps here when it comes to stopping the run are incredible. Tennessee went from an arguably bottom third team in these categories, to a top-20 unit in the country. They did it with players that were already on the roster in 2021. If you want evidence of Rodney Gardner‘s coaching ability, here it is.

What’s different from last year?

Big man in the middle

The emergence of defensive tackle Omari Thomas cannot be understated. Tennessee fans already knew that Thomas was quickly improving and becoming a very quality starter. But I’m not sure national pundits and scouts were aware of Thomas’ NFL potential.

If they didn’t before the last few games, they do now. The former top-100 prospect has exploded onto the scene as both a pass rushing interior option and a run stuffer. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Thomas has been the single most disruptive interior defensive lineman. His ability to not only clog up a lane, but blow up a play entirely, has been essential to Tennessee’s defensive line taking the leap that they have.

Also, I feel the need to at least mention LaTrell Bumphus. The sixth year senior has played a pretty crazy amount of snaps for Tennessee this year, even after having two injuries since 2020. He’s not playing like an All-SEC lineman or anything, but his ability to split time between defensive tackle and defensive end—and register 50+ snaps in multiple games—has allowed younger guys to ease their way in.

Linebacker play is improving and helping the defense do its job

There’s also an aspect completely unrelated to the line itself. Tennessee’s linebacker unit has improved, to the point where defensive coordinator Tim Banks can get more flexible with his looks inside the box. Aaron Beasley and a steadily improving Jeremy Banks means that the defense knows they can trust that unit to make a play if given the opportunity. So the onus isn’t completely on the linemen to do all the heavy lifting. All of this stuff works in tandem, and having a balance means that Banks can sleep a little easier at night.

A consideration about the sack numbers

The one place that remains a concern is the pass rush. However, there needs to be a note that this is not a pressure statistic. The Volunteers actually have done a good job of collapsing the pocket on opposing quarterbacks. The issue is they are not converting that pressure to sacks. Why?

I would point out the Tennessee has faced some of the more mobile quarterbacks in the country. Jayden Daniels, Bryce Young, and Anthony Richardson can all tuck it and run fairly well. Naturally, those types of guys are going to escape more than traditional pocket passers. The next few teams Tennessee faces will have more stationary quarterbacks, and they really won’t face another mobile guy until Spencer Rattler at South Carolina. If anything, I think the numbers will improve down the stretch.