Let’s Talk About The Real Problem With The Vols
After another Saturday spent with Vol Twitter as they parse and complain about every single thing that happens in a game, anyone’s eyes start to burn. After all, there’s only so many times before you backspace over a knee-jerk reaction before you mess up and let one slip. And after watching Vols fans call out players, insult their abilities, and curse their children to dubious destinies I find it kind of disturbing that the blame’s not being placed squarely where it needs to be.
First things first: let’s get this out there before we go any further. First game was against a triple option/flexbone offense that is a pain in the rear to defend against. Second game was against a vastly inferior opponent. There was no chance that the Vols were going to run up the score on the Sycamores of Indiana State. But, coming up third, the Volunteers go to Florida. So, how much of the real playbook do you think UT is showing in these first two games?
Right. Not much.
But that’s not the real issue, playbook or no. The real issue is a bit more concerning. The Vols have been working to build up depth on the offensive line for pretty much as long as I can remember. Sometimes, it feels like we haven’t had a good o-line since Fulmer was on the sidelines. This year, UT should have been set on the line but for some reason, this line isn’t performing up to par. With two new quarterbacks under center — and don’t get me started on the Dormady versus Guaratano Vol Twitter in-fighting — the last thing anyone wants to see is penetration into the backfield.
Coach Wells, what are you doing? Coach Scott, shouldn’t you be getting just a little concerned?
If it wasn’t for the fact that John Kelly is just a beast, what kind of success would the Vols have in the run game behind that line? Give some serious props to freshman right guard Trey Smith, who’s been the bright spot in a line returned almost intact from 2016 — when the o-line was also a huge problem. Heading into SEC play, this is an unacceptable situation on every level and one that’s supposedly been “being corrected” for a long, long time. This year was supposed to be the best the o-line has looked in years. And yet…it’s not.
Can’t claim it’s a talent problem. Can’t call it a depth issue during the second game of the year. What we can call it is disturbing.
But of greater concern, to me at least, is the overall ineffectiveness of the defense under second-year coordinator Bob Shoop and in particular the defensive line under Brady Hoke. Georgia Tech’s offense is, undeniably, difficult to defend against. But Indiana State?
After allowing 655 yards of offense (535 of those yards rushing) against Georgia Tech, the Volunteers permitted the Sycamores to gain 215 yards including 122 on the ground. Fortunately, week three opponent Florida didn’t look like it could scrape together an offensive series with a bulldozer but there’s one thing I’d be willing to bet they’re planning to do against yet another porous Vols defense.
Run. The. Ball.
Which is, of course, the absolute best-case scenario for a team without a passing game.
Sure. The Vols lost some huge names to attrition after 2016. But even with those names, Tennessee was giving up roughly 450 yards offense per game. So the problem here doesn’t seem to be the players. The problem is two-fold. First, the defensive line isn’t getting any penetration off the ball. And second, as a result of that ineffective d-line, rushers are getting into the secondary way too fast.
The combination of these two issues may present a huge problem heading into the SEC schedule. And while this week’s game against Florida may be delayed or moved considering the current crisis (and, quite honestly, should be so as not to take away necessary resources from the state) this isn’t a problem that can be solved during practice. This problem has to be solved in the football offices, in the playbook, and in the planning prior to games. And so far, it hasn’t been.
Look, this is a rebuilding year for the Volunteers, whether it should be or not. But it doesn’t have to be a disastrous one. With the proper game plans, better use of the playbook, and the flexibility to adapt to different types of opponents instead of sticking to schemes that patently aren’t working, this rebuilding year could be a landmark run for Team 121. And the real problem seems to be that last element.
When I started on this article, I got about halfway through and ran out of gas. I began writing it as the final four minutes ticked off the jumbotron at Neyland Stadium. But when I hit that point when I felt the article wasn’t working, I set it aside for a day. Let what I wanted to convey percolate a little. And then when I came back to it, I adapted my approach and came at the topic from a different angle. Not because I doubted what I could do, but because I have the experience as a writer to recognize that what I was doing was not working the way I wanted it to.
While writing and coaching aren’t exactly parallels, there are always elements that coincide when a person is trying to do their job well. You always hear people saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But if it isn’t working, the earmark of someone who is successful at what they do is to take a good, hard look at what they’ve been doing and trying to find ways to improve their work and achieve their ultimate goals.
I’m not part of the torch-bearing “Fire Butch!” mob. I’m not part of the Knoxville media pool, so Butchisms don’t particularly annoy me. And I don’t think he’s a failure as a coach. His teams don’t give up, his players kill themselves for him, and he pulled the Vols out of a Kiffin-Dooley dumpster and built them into a relevant program again in under five years.
Tennessee players are academically worlds above the program he inherited, and their community presence and overall behavior are things all UT fans should be justly proud of. His recruiting has been successful on a level Tennessee hasn’t seen in years, and the future looks bright. Who would look at our RB corps, the WRs, and the special teams in particular and not be excited for what’s ahead? So, no — I don’t think he’s a bad coach. In fact, I think he has most of the tools to be a great coach.
Save for one, and that’s flexibility.
Butch Jones’s overriding flaw may be his inability to address issues within his staff that are patently not working. And you know, next game he could come out of the tunnel at the Swamp or Neyland and prove me completely wrong and man, do I hope so. He could address the core issues and a Volunteer squad could emerge that has adapted as the result of the past two weeks’ worth of painful lessons to administer a few painful lessons of their own to their opponents.
That could most definitely happen and if it does I’ll let Charlie Burris take a picture of me eating a crow pie with salt.
But if it doesn’t happen, that’s the real question to look at over the course of this football season. Can Coach Jones adapt to the needs and talents of his team? Can he find the flexibility to make the changes necessary to succeed in a tough SEC conference and the path to Atlanta far more open than most pundits expected?
Or will the Volunteers continue stubbornly on a path that hasn’t exactly been an overwhelming success in the first two games of the season? With both Florida and Georgia slated as two of the next three Tennessee opponents, there’s not a lot of time before those questions may be answered.