Mid-Season Review: Tennessee’s Offense Isn’t Bad, but Why Isn’t It Better?

Photo Credit: UT Sports

The raw points are confusing enough: Tennessee scored more or as many in one half against Florida (35), Texas A&M (28), and Georgia (27, though likely 28 with an extra point) than they did in entire games against Appalachian State (13 in regulation) and Ohio (28). Tennessee barely tops 30 points per game (30.4) despite having the seventh-best starting field position in all of FBS (on average, their own 35 yard line).

That makes almost zero sense, aside from the explanation of a team getting up for big games and playing down to their competition whenever possible. Most confusing and frustrating is Tennessee’s inability to string together a cohesive 60-minute (or even 50-minute) offensive performance against any team on their schedule so far.

This is my nice way of saying that Tennessee is 5–2 despite an incomplete offense, a defense that literally has not finished a game with its starting lineup all season (six of 11 opening night starters currently injured), and a mortifying inability to start any game well, regardless of competition. While the defense mostly lived up to expectations pre-injuries (79% or 80% defensive percentile in each of Tennessee’s first three games, which would be a ~top 25 level performance), the offense has struggled mightily for long stretches in every game due to any number of the following occurring:

  • Questionable game plans and/or predictability in early play-calling
  • Not putting one’s best players in the right position to succeed
  • A bad offensive line in 2015 somehow being worse in 2016 (17 sacks allowed through 7 games, compared to 24 in 13 games last season)
  • The most fumbles of any team in America
  • Poor situational play (Tennessee ranks 57th of 65 Power 5 + Notre Dame teams in yards per carry (YPC) on third down and 55th on first down)
  • Josh Dobbs’ struggles with downfield passing

This is all despite showing their potential in numerous performances: a 684-yard day against now No. 6 Texas A&M, 38 points on a Florida team that came into the game with the No. 1 defense in college football, 45 points on Virginia Tech, and 27 in the second half to beat Georgia. Tennessee fans could be satisfied with this, but forgiveness is available due to Tennessee’s inconsistency, lack of attention to detail, and a large number of self-imposed mistakes by both player and coach alike.

In an attempt to deconstruct this mystery piece-by-piece, we’ll go into detail on each of the above six possibilities, plus some other less prominent questions still worth asking about at the end. If you dislike reading, here’s your spoiler: it’s a little bit of everything, with some standing out more than most.

Is it questionable game plans and/or predictability in early play-calling?

I’ve held a theory since midway through last season that the first play on Tennessee’s first offensive series is always a Jalen Hurd (or Alvin Kamara in games where Hurd is injured) run up the middle. Is this true? Well, lucky you: I ran the stats back to the start of 2015 (DeBord era) to find out if Tennessee’s first play is as obvious as I think it is. Here’s what I found:

  • 2016: 5 of 7 games [25 yards on 5 carries; 2 of 5 drives resulting in points (FG v. App State, TD v. Ohio)]
  • 2015: 11 of 13 games (79 yards on 11 carries; two carries of 16 (Florida) and 35 (Arkansas) yards, 28 on other 9 carries)

The only exceptions to this rule were 2015 Western Carolina (a 5 yard pass to Jauan Jennings), Outback Bowl Northwestern (a -3 yard pass to Alvin Kamara), 2016 Virginia Tech (a 2 yard pass to Josh Malone), and 2016 Ohio (an outside run play to Alvin Kamara for 35 yards). If an opposing defensive coordinator knows from your last 20 games that Hurd or Kamara will be getting the ball 80% of the time on your first play, and that nearly the same amount of carries will be between the tackles, then it becomes easier and easier to stop. Hurd has taken just one of these carries for longer than a 6 yard gain since 2015 Arkansas, and that was an 11 yard gain against Georgia. Meaning: the last ten of these have gone for 3.5 YPC, which is almost right at Hurd’s current YPC for 2016 (3.8). The point is this: I, someone who’s never played a down of football, can tell you 80% of the time what Tennessee’s first play is. That’s alarming.

Tennessee also showcases an unusually high first down run rate of 68.9%, meaning that 69 of every 100 first down plays is a run of some sort. That would be fine if Tennessee didn’t rank 106th of 128 FBS schools in first down YPC. It would be also fine if Josh Dobbs didn’t possess a 164.8 QB rating on first downs, good enough for 22nd-best in the nation. Tennessee is actually more run-reliant in second halves than first (60.1% run rate versus 56.4% in first halves), but they’re unable to create any real explosion plays: just one of every 9.8 Tennessee first half runs goes for over ten yards, while one of every 7 goes for over ten yards in the second half.

You could even make the argument that Tennessee isn’t even putting out the right player for these first down runs: Alvin Kamara owns a 5.44 YPC to Jalen Hurd’s 3.47 through seven games on first downs, including the same number of 10+ yard runs (5) on nearly half the carries (32 vs. 60).

I didn’t forget the passing side of this, which is just as disappointing to read into. Josh Malone has five touchdowns in 2016 and 20 receptions, meaning that one out of every for catches is a touchdown. Would you like to know how many receptions Josh Malone has in seven first halves this year? Seven. Also, would you like to know how many games this season he hasn’t caught a ball in the first half? Four of seven. In more than half of Tennessee’s games, they have not gotten the ball to the most talented (maybe?) wide receiver on the roster in the first 30 minutes of a game. It’s bad for Jauan Jennings, too: 8 catches for 79 yards in the first 30 minutes. Jennings is just as explosive in first halves, too (3 of 8 receptions for 15+ yards, 5 of 12 in second halves), making this even more frustrating.

Lastly: Josh Dobbs has been sacked 11 times on 115 first-half dropbacks (9.6% sack rate) versus six times on 109 in the second half (5.5%). This is only notable in this section to illustrate the following: when you remove the sacks from his season-long totals, Dobbs has 72 runs, probably 70–75ish% designed, for 439 yards. That’s a solid 6.1 yards per carry, which currently ranks first on the team amongst Tennessee’s Big Three. (Kamara: 4.9, Hurd: 3.8.) For reasons only known to God Himself, Dobbs averages four designed runs in the first halves of Tennessee games. Four. Joshua Dobbs has as many first-half designed runs and/or scrambles as there are Michael Bay Transformers movies. Four. Would you like to guess Dobbs’ YPC on those four first-half runs? 6.8.

To be fair, I should note the following: most of Tennessee’s run plays with Hurd/Kamara in the backfield are read options where Dobbs has the choice to run or hand it off. Predominantly, Dobbs hands these off. The guy who wrote the book on the Butch Jones offense, Seth Price, says as such:

It might be that Dobbs is simply very poor at running the ‘read’ part of the read option. If this is so, that’s a shame and we’ll have to wait for Jarrett Guarantano to see any real progress. However, shouldn’t there be a few more rollouts in passing formations for Dobbs to use his only real plus as a quarterback? Limited play calling such as the following hurts Dobbs’ inherent capabilities by attempting to turn him into a pocket passer where the pocket is the size of an iPod Shuffle and he is protected by ants. Not even fire ants, dude.

It is both notable and depressing how much better Tim Williams (Alabama #55) is than Chance Hall (#76). It was even more depressing watching this happen twice more in the first half and Tennessee’s offensive staff refusing to adjust by at least putting Ethan Wolf on Williams’ side, which would have at least added a couple feet in width to slow him down slightly.

I feel safe in calling Tennessee’s poorly-designed first half game plans and oddly-timed rhythm in play-calling a significant part of The Problem. If you come into this with an open mind and look at the stats above, you’d say Tennessee should mix it up more on first down to enable a clearer direction of purpose on second and third downs, therefore opening up the offense and creating more scoring opportunities. However, reader, you and I both have about the same amount of confidence that this will actually happen.

Is Tennessee not putting their best players in the right position to succeed?

Look at Alvin Kamara above. Doesn’t he look pretty good at football? I mean, he is: he was Tennessee’s #2 rusher and #3 receiver in 2015, and he’s occupied basically the same role in 2016. When Kamara touched the ball either via ground or air in 2015, he had 989 yards on 141 touches (10.8 per game), or 7.01 yards per play. Let’s continue the first down stats from above: on an average first down, Kamara would grab about 6.53 yards and turn it into second and three. That’s a player you’d get more touches, no? Well…

In games where both Hurd and Kamara have played for Tennessee, Kamara averages less touches per game (10; 60 through six games) than he did in 2015. This couldn’t make less sense when he’s just as explosive as he was last season (6.7 yards per touch) and when he has more first downs than Hurd (30 to 26) despite getting the ball eight less times per game (20.7 to 12.8). To Butch Jones’s credit, Kamara is technically touching the ball more this season: he’s now the starting punt returner (10.2 yards per return) and he relied on him heavily in the Texas A&M game for good reason.

However, it still stands to make very little sense as to why a player would set the university’s all-purpose yards record the week before then touch the ball 10 times against the toughest opponent they’ll see all season. It’s also odd that, as I noted earlier, the player with easily the best first half YPC on the team (Josh Dobbs at 6.8 versus Kamara’s 5.44 and Hurd’s 3.47) averages four runs per first half. Along with that, Dobbs averages 15 pass attempts every first half despite a sub-100 QB rating. If you know your quarterback on the whole isn’t that great of a passer (62nd in QB rating overall, between Drew Lock of Missouri and Nevada’s QB), why not use his best aspects more? It’s little things like this that turn into albatrosses, slowing down a should-be potent Tennessee offense.

There’s also the issue of Josh Smith almost being entirely useless to date (52 yards on 8 catches and 21 targets), the inability to find a potent third wide receiver (Tyler Byrd has looked to be easily the best option here to date, but he’s targeted on just 7.9% of Dobbs’ passes), and — the staple of the Tennessee offense — too many wide receiver rotations. It’s obvious that Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings are the two best receivers on the team and that no one else is particularly close in competition with them. So why are they targeted on just 34.5% of Tennessee’s passes? Lane Kiffin knows Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart are very easily his two best options at receiver, and the stats back that up: they’re targeted on 50.7% of Alabama’s pass attempts. Ridley alone gets 32.8%. If you have two top-tier options, why not target them early and often?

What about a bad offensive line somehow being worse in 2016?

All you need to know about this before you start seriously questioning Don Mahoney’s usefulness to the University of Tennessee is the following: Pro Football Focus grades every college team (FBS and FCS) on both run and pass blocking. Tennessee ranks 181st of 210 in pass blocking thanks to allowing 67 pressures on 216 dropbacks (1 every 3.22 dropbacks) prior to the Alabama game.

There are 128 teams in FBS. At least 53 FCS teams — who get to offer 22 less scholarships than FBS teams — are either more efficient, less atrocious, better, not worse, less embarrassing, more physical, or whatever you want it to be than Tennessee. When you remember that San Jose State (33 sacks allowed), UMass (29), North Texas (27), Miami (Ohio) (27), and Iowa State (27) all field FBS teams and have given up 10 more sacks than Tennessee, it gets that much worse. Yes, this is a major problem.

Here’s some stats from the phenomenal @CFBFilmRoom on Twitter:

And again, here’s the pass blocking success rate for Tennessee from the same team at CFB Film Room:

  • Chance Hall: 13 pressures allowed in 132 pass blocking snaps (one every 10.2 snaps), 2 sacks, 90.2% success rate
  • Brett Kendrick: 10 in 215 (one every 21.5 snaps), 4 sacks, 95.3% success rate
  • Jashon Robertson: 10 in 191 snaps (one every 19.1 snaps), 1 sack, 94.8% success rate
  • Jack Jones: 7 in 198 snaps (one every 28.3 snaps), 0 sacks (!), 96.5% success rate
  • Coleman Thomas: 6 in 165 snaps (one every 27.5 snaps), 2 sacks, 96.4% success rate
  • Dylan Weisman: 4 in 158 snaps (one every 39.5 snaps), 0 sacks, 97.5% success rate
  • Drew Richmond: 2 in 60 snaps (one every 30 snaps), 1 sack, 96.7% success rate

Taken individually, these numbers only reflect poorly on Chance Hall, who’s had a quietly abysmal time at right tackle in pass protection. As a whole, it’s much worse: this offensive line allows Josh Dobbs to be pressured on 36.3% of his dropbacks when counting out of conference play, and on one of every 2.8 dropbacks, the pocket collapses. These are wretched, awful numbers. If Don Mahoney can’t develop some fairly good high school players into at least average collegiate linemen, why is he at Tennessee?

Maybe it’s having the most fumbles of any team in America?

This is from Steven Godfrey’s piece on Houston’s inhuman turnover margin in 2014:

“Life in the Third Ward is the slap game from hell. You can smack the football out before, during, or after any drill, during any part of practice and at any point in time you see a football at the University of Houston. Life as a Cougar defender is a never-ending, 24/7 strip drill. ‘We’ll be at the house and start messin’ around if someone’s got a ball, tryin’ to take it out,’ defensive back Adrian McDonald says. Or if you don’t see a football, you can slap something out of your teammates’ hands when you’re at home as roommates. ‘I mean, nothing nice that can be broken. But we’ve gone through a few remotes.’”

Tennessee has fumbled the ball 21 times in seven games, or three per game. This is the most in America. The national average is 9.27. I don’t think that Tennessee has suddenly been bit by the wrong Fumble God, and I anticipate that this probably regresses to the mean. But wouldn’t you feel a little bit more comfortable if the next practice report told you the Vols had adopted former Houston head coach Tony Levine’s slap game from hell?

Is it poor situational play?

Now, situational play can mean a lot of things: Tennessee’s rushing offense sputters massively on first and third downs (106th and 115th), but is at least average on second down (59th). Does this mean much? Not really, aside from the run rate on first downs being a bit too high, as I noted earlier. It could mean something that regardless of rushing or passing (88th in QB rating), Tennessee’s third down offense is abysmal. The already-porous pass protection gets even worse for Josh Dobbs on third downs, who’s been sacked on 8 of his 74 third-down dropbacks, or one every 9.25 dropbacks. And that’s with his miraculous scrambles! Compare that to 3 sacks of 74 second-down dropbacks (one every 24.7) or 6 of 73 on first downs (one every 12.17).

Dobbs has also been brutally bad in the red zone, though this could be due to his line play. He’s 1–8 from inside the 10 yard line with an interception, per ESPN. CFBStats says he possesses the 52nd-best QB rating in the red zone, though ESPN snaps back at them by saying Dobbs is 9–27 in the red zone this year. (CFBStats says 12–25, which is bizarre, so I’m posting both.)

If you can count quarter-by-quarter play as situational, then that reflects poorly on the offensive line as well: they give up nearly as many sacks in the first quarter alone (eight) as they do in the final 45 minutes (nine). Perhaps this might be why Dobbs is completing 48.1% of his passes in the first quarter but 61.8% the rest of the way? I don’t know, I just write words.

Those sack numbers affect Dobbs’ running heavily, too: with sacks included, he has two rushing yards in the first quarter this season. If you’re curious, and I’m certain you are if you’ve made it this far, he has 291 over the final three quarters. If he held that average for just 15 more minutes, he’d average over 55 rushing yards per game even with sacks included in the total. The first quarter is a killer.

This goes back to the predictability part from earlier, but over half of Jalen Hurd’s runs have come on first downs this season (60 of 114), where he’s averaged 3.5 YPC. He averages 4.2 on all other downs. Alvin Kamara is the opposite: he’s solid on first downs (5.4 YPC), but is hampered by something on second and third downs (3.32 YPC). Again, this is all about consistency: championship teams almost never have situational play as poor as the Vols have in certain spots this season. I don’t believe this is quite as impactful as the others — I doubt the offensive line suddenly gains a little more strength for everyone on second downs only — but it’s not a great sign.

Could the downfield passing game simply not be feasible because Josh Dobbs is a below-average passer?

Tennessee fans are clamoring like crazy for a better downfield passing game. Unfortunately, I don’t know if you can pin this one on the coaching staff: Josh Dobbs was 16 of 46 (34.8%) on pass attempts of over 20 yards in 2015 and 10 of 32 (31.3%) on 10–19 yard passes outside the hashmarks. Most of Tennessee’s success comes in the middle of the field, where Dobbs completed around 62% of his passes past 10 yards last season. That’s pretty good. However, his inability to use the sidelines well puts a governor on Tennessee’s golf cart, so to speak.

More from @CFBFilmRoom:

The struggles are still there, along with the inconsistency and flashes of brilliance: Dobbs was 2 of 14 (14.3%) on passes longer than 10 yards against Texas A&M, but had completed 78.6% of his 20+ yard throws in the three games prior to that. That was after completing a total of two 20+ yard throws in his first two games (the two Malone TDs). Dobbs didn’t complete a single pass of longer than 20 yards against Alabama on four attempts (2 of 7 on all passes of 10+ yards). In all, Dobbs is 29 of 70 (41.4%) on all passes 10 yards or longer this season. For three games, Dobbs has looked outstanding on downfield throws. In four others, he’s been a non-entity. This is a critical misfiring and inconsistent part to Tennessee’s offense, and getting Dobbs to be more efficient on the sidelines will be important to how Tennessee finishes the season.

My conclusion is as follows: Tennessee’s offensive problems are a bit of everything, as I noted above. Predominantly, it’s a baffling first half game plan that relies heavily on the worst Tennessee offensive line I can remember to pass block on slow-developing plays, putting both Josh Dobbs and his receivers in bad positions. Running-wise, creativity has been lacking and Tennessee’s wasted a lot of first downs with Hurd runs up the middle.

Tennessee isn’t getting the ball to its playmakers enough, either: another reminder that Josh Malone is catchless in four of seven first halves. Again, the offensive line is brutally bad. They can’t stop fumbling. Tennessee’s situational play is oddly poor at times.

There are a lot of issues with this offense.

However, it’s tough to ignore the overall progress: Tennessee is a bit ahead of where they were last year at this time, with competition adjusted. Even with some poor interceptions, this is Josh Dobbs’ best statistical season yet. After struggling to find a worthwhile option of any kind at wide receiver last year, Tennessee now has two in Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings with Tyler Byrd rapidly ascending to #3. Jalen Hurd has struggled mightily, but he’s still very reliable in a third-down back role. Alvin Kamara’s breakout finally happened. John Kelly, when given the ball, has shined.

I think this offense could still click given some adjustments of target share, proper touches based on statistical output, more Dobbs rollouts, less Hurd up the middle on first and second downs, more Kamara, more Jennings, more Malone, etc. On slow-developing plays, either keep Hurd/Kamara in the backfield to ensure six blockers versus four or five rushers or keep Ethan Wolf/Jason Croom back. I’d like to request for Josh Dobbs to throw it downfield more, but a body of work is building to show that he simply cannot do so. The offensive line is likely beyond full repair until a new offensive line coach can be brought in or the linemen can be taught either a simpler or more physically potent scheme. It’s certainly not a lost cause, though, and I still maintain that 2014’s offensive line at least looked worse before Dobbs saved it.

There’s still time; the amount is dwindling, though, and it is imperative for Butch Jones and his offensive staff to make adjustments as such.