Tennessee is four weeks into its 2022 season, and with a top-25 road non-conference win and ending their drought against Florida under their belts, I think it’s safe to say things are going rather swimmingly in Josh Heupel’s second season. So what’s gone right and what’s not exactly up to par thus far this season? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
BREAKING: Hendon Hooker is good at football. The fifth year senior was given the reins to Heupel’s offense a season ago, and all he’s done is become one of the most efficient quarterbacks on one of college football’s highest scoring offenses. As a Vol, Hooker has thrown for 39 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and his 2022 season has Vols fans seeing New York in their dreams.
Hooker has thrown eight touchdowns thus far and has yet to throw an interception. Obviously his top flight accuracy and decision making play a huge part of that, and the offensive line has done a solid job protecting him thus far.
This is Tennessee’s predicted points added (collegefootballdata.com’s EPA metric) on passing plays this year versus their success rate on them. The Vols are second in both PPA per play and success rate, making them the best combination amongst SEC teams. Among all 131 teams in the country, Tennessee ranks seventh in PPA/passing play and fourth in pass play success rate.
This is how Hooker stacks up in overall PPA per play, garbage time excluded, against the rest of the SEC’s starting quarterbacks:
Much like last year, efficiency drives the ship for Hooker, but he’s also more explosive this year through the air than last. Hooker’s ADOT (average depth of target) currently sits at 11.5, up from 9.9 overall last season which is part of one of the biggest changes from last season to this season. Heupel is placing more faith in the arm of #5.
Something I noticed, as well as Clint did as you can see here in his bye week grab bag, Tennessee slowed the game down against Florida and let Hooker cook rather than relying on the fast tempo to wear down the defense to move the ball. I think that’s a big trust thing between he and Heupel as well as the coaches liking the matchups on the outside. Hooker picked Florida apart, so I’m curious to see if Tennessee feels more comfortable doing this when they have leads in the second half. There’s tremendous value in squeezing the air out of the ball late in games while also putting up points in bunches, but you don’t want a team to break its normal pace and become stagnant.
Amongst what’s been a relatively weak unit against the pass, Tennessee’s pass rush has been a bright spot for the most part, although it’s becoming quite the enigma.
As you see here, Tennessee’s sack rate is slightly below middle of the pack despite generating pressure at the second highest rate in the conference. The unit up front led by Byron Young and Tyler Baron on the edges is among the more underrated in the SEC as both have win rates in the same range as Will Anderson Jr.
So what is creating such a disparity in generating pressure but not getting the sacks? There’s a couple main factors. The main one is that the secondary is an abyss of poor coverage and blown assignments. Too many times this year, especially in the Florida game, the secondary is getting absolutely torched, and it’s bailing out the quarterbacks and hurting the pass rush.
The Vols got pressure on Anthony Richardson on 22 of his 48 dropbacks, per PFF. They only sacked him once. Of course, Richardson’s legs and ability to extend plays is the second force at play that creates the lack of sacks, but time and time again, Richardson was able to bail out of the pocket and find open receivers down the field. The secondary is just that bad right now, but don’t let that take away from what the pass rush has been able to create.
- The Secondary
So, the secondary has been bad, but just how bad has it been? Brace yourself, and take this as your warning.
- Passing yards per game allowed: 309.3 (123 out of 131 teams)
- Dropbacks per game against: 49.5 (most in SEC)
- 53.5 coverage grade per PFF (119 out of 131)
The secondary is a unit dragging down a good run defense and underrated pass rush because of their inability to cover. The issue starts with scheme. Teams know they can throw on Tennessee because they play soft and don’t cover the middle of the field well at all. The Vols rank top 30 in the country in fewest rush attempts against because the book is out: pass against Tennessee.
As you see here, the run defense, again, very good outside of that Pitt game thus far (I want to see the run defense against more SEC teams before I make them a “good” place of note just because of that Pitt game), but that pass defense is brutal. Vanderbilt will continually be an outlier to passing metric stats against, so being right around a horrid South Carolina pass defense and a Florida team that had to play against your Heisman contending quarterback is *really* bad.
Tennessee is also second worst in the SEC in PPA per play against the pass behind Vandy.
Kamal Hadden has improved from his sophomore campaign to this year, but he had a brutal outing against Florida, which really proved to be Tennessee’s first real test against a quarterback that can make a game changing difference.
The safety play has also been shoddy once again. Jaylen McCollough has been the best amongst the group defending the run, but he has been brutal in coverage while Trevon Flowers has struggled in all facets. The middle of the field has been getting carved up through four games, and if there aren’t any signs of improvement there, the Vols should look at getting more snaps for Doneiko Slaughter and Andre Turrentine.
Warren Burrell going down for the season is a big blow for this secondary as well. Despite struggling again this year, the depth of this secondary is certainly not a strength, so missing a healthy body back there is a net negative. This does mean we’ll see more of Christian Charles, though, so I’m intrigued to see what he brings on the outside.
Overall, the pass defense is the one major key holding this team back from taking a major ascension in Josh Heupel’s second year. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve made a tremendous leap, but the secondary is game-losing bad right now, and it doesn’t even need to be against the Georgia’s or Alabama’s of the conference, and that’s a scary premise considering where the Vols sit in the polls right now.
We will come back to this in four more weeks, hopefully after four more Vol wins.