Tennessee’s coaches haven’t made it a secret that improving their downfield passing game is a major goal for spring camp.
The Vols already have half of the equation to producing an explosive offense this fall with a strong running game. The next step is pretty simple: When defenses roll up and load the tackle box to stop the run, it’s time to beat the opposition deep. However, the Vols have struggled to do that consistently for years, and last season was no different.
According to statistics provided by Pro Football Focus, Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs completed only 16-of-46 passes thrown over 20 yards, or about 35 percent. Tennessee was at its worst outside of the left hash downfield, where it only completed 3-of-13 passes over 20 yards. That’s just 23 percent.
However, the Vols didn’t just struggle on deep balls. They struggled in other areas as well. From 10-to-19 yards and outside the hash marks, Dobbs went 10-of-32 for a 31-percent completion percentage.
Dobbs was most accurate in the middle of the field, completing 75-of-123 passes for a 61-percent completion percentage between the hash marks and past the line of scrimmage. He was 27-of-43 from 10-to-19 yards between the hashmarks for a 63-percent completion percentage. The rising senior completed 59.6-percent of his passes all last season
Tennessee had nine plays last season over 40 yards. Dobbs’ passing only accounted for three of them.
It’s important to note that Dobbs isn’t solely responsible for Tennessee’s downfield passing, or lack thereof. Playcalling and receiver play are both strong factors. However, overall accuracy, particularly in certain areas of the field, is clearly a concern.
“The deep ball obviously,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said when asked what the Vols need to improve on during spring practice and summer workouts. “The deeper routes, like the dig routes, things like that on the move. We’ve got to get better completing those.”
Tennessee receivers coach and passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni said improving on deep balls is all about repetition.
“We’ve got to throw it,” Azzanni said. “We’ve got to throw it. We’ve got to throw it and we’ve got to throw it. It’s us (receivers) and the quarterbacks being on the same page. If we’re running right past a guy, that ball has got to be thrown out in front of us or on top of our head. For the quarterback, we’ve got to be able to beat press coverage all the time. I think we can do that. Now, we just have to get on the same page.”
Tennessee’s coaches have seen the same issues that so many fans have complained about. Whether it’s Dobbs’ accuracy or just an overall lack of chemistry among him and the receivers, improvement needs to be made.
“We made it a point of emphasis this spring,” Azzanni said. “We’ve got some big-play capabilities out there. These guys, they’re as good as you’ll find running the deep ball. We’ve just got to keep throwing it and catching it and keep working on it.”
One newcomer, a former quarterback and a resurgent player, should give the Vols a boost when it comes to throwing the deep ball. Junior college transfer Jeff George has the frame at 6-foot-6 to be a deep ball target. He was also known for some spectacular leaping catches in junior college. However, the transition to the SEC won’t be easy.
“This is a learning system for a junior college player to go out there and get better and go through our grind,” Azzanni said. “They didn’t play like this (in junior college). Our style of play is different. The weight room is different, which he’s needed. He’s gained 14 pounds of muscle since he got here in January, so all of those things make you a better player.”
The added weight has helped. So has George’s approach.
“His whole overall physicality,” Azzanni said. “Long way to go, not anywhere near where we need it to be but in this conference, you’ve got to be a physical wide receiver. If you’re not, it’s going to be a long day for you on Saturday. You’re able to kind of finesse sometimes at lower levels. You can’t do that here. You’ve got to be a physical, tough player and he’s learning that – sometimes the hard way – but that’s good. That’s what it’s about.”
Williams is probably just glad last season is over. The highly touted prospect from Hampton, Ga., wasn’t ruled eligible by the NCAA until training camp was almost over. A flagged college entrance exam score kept him on the sideline throughout preseason camp. Then, Williams suffered a hamstring injury midway through the season. Despite catching seven passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns, it was impossible for Williams to play to his potential, and that affected his attitude.
“Unbelieveable,” DeBord said of Williams attitude change from last season. “Night and day. I think he came in and he missed training camp so that was a big problem, so he jumps right into it and we’re into the season. It probably wasn’t — to be fair to him — wasn’t a great situation at that time, whereas now he’s went through the season. He’s going through spring football. He’s gone through the winter. He’s gone through that whole process so now that’s done nothing but, I think, help him mentally and physically.”
Azzanni is known for coming up with nicknames to motivate his players, subtle digs to keep them hungry. Williams was one of Azzanni’s main targets last season.
“We used to call him ‘Phillip’ instead of Preston,” receiver Josh Smith said. “Whenever he would complain, Coach Z would be like ‘Phillip’. Now, it’s Preston.”
Jauan Jennings is another receiver expected to make plays downfield. After moving from quarterback during preseason camp, he caught 14 passes for 149 yards and threw a 58-yard touchdown pass. Jennings is widely thought to be one of the most competitive players on the team.
“Both of them are competitors,” DeBord said when asked about Jennings and Williams. “Both of them go out there with a great attitude to get better everyday. Those two continue to work to get better on their routes.”
Whatever the reasons for Tennessee’s struggles completing the deep ball, it’s hard to imagine the Vols achieving their ultimate goals without some explosive plays in the passing game. With a trio of receivers that should be able to stretch defenses, it’s up to Dobbs to prove he has the chemistry and accuracy to keep defensive backs on their heels.