The Florida-Tennessee game on Saturday is the biggest of Butch Jones’ coaching career. He enters the matchup with his team’s biggest weakness — the offensive line — squaring off against Florida’s biggest strength, its defensive front.
Here are four things that the Tennessee staff must build into its game plan in order to mitigate the strength-on-weakness imbalance.
1. Move the launching point
For Tennessee to win, it cannot allow Florida’s deep-and-talented rotation of pass rushers to tee off on quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Through three weeks, the Vols’ line has struggled in pass protection. In Week 1 against Appalachian State and in the first half against Virginia Tech, Tennessee struggled with communication, often not knowing who was supposed to be blocking whom. This left free rushers on Dobbs, even when the Vols had the correct numbers.
Since then, they’ve reshaped the group, improving at the center position but weakening the tackle spots.
In a head-to-head “straight rush” matchup, Tennessee’s offensive line would be overwhelmed. Forcing Florida’s defensive front to move laterally has to be a core element of the game plan.
Dobbs’ rushing threat builds some of that in for the offense. It forces defenses to stay disciplined in rush lanes and not get too far downfield in case Dobbs scrambles.
However, consistently moving the pocket, rolling out Dobbs and mixing up his dropbacks must be priorities.
Changing the angle for pass rushers by moving the launching point disrupts the rhythm. Now, rather than zeroing in on the same spot, defenders have to locate the quarterback.
It also allows Tennessee some time to run vertical passing concepts that it’ll struggle running with straight dropbacks.
Here’s an example from Tennessee’s last game vs. Ohio:
It’s an awful miss from Dobbs, but you can see the design. He drops further back, at an angle, allowing the receiver to come right across the formation and giving him room to step up.
Moving Dobbs, particularly on rollouts, provides another pair of advantages:
- His athletic ability is built into the play design, meaning the plays can be run-pass options in which he takes off running himself.
- It splits the field in half and makes decision-making easier against a tough secondary.
Yes, they limit some of what Tennessee can run, making them a more horizontal attack. But with problems up front, moving the ball laterally and getting rid of it quickly in the passing game will be crucial.
2. Utilize split-back sets
I argued in the offseason that split-back sets should be a big portion of the Vols’ offense. Instead, they’ve continued to rotate Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara rather than consistently line them up together.
To me, that’s illogical. Hurd and Kamara are two of the offense’s best 11 players. Not consistently getting them on the field at the same time means one of three things:
- They’ve been concealing play designs early in the season with the Florida game in mind.
- They believe it makes the offense too horizontal.
- The offensive staff is unimaginative.
The Vols cannot afford to have their two best playmakers split snaps simply because they play the same position.
3. Eliminate stretch run concepts
Tennessee’s offensive line has really struggled this season with movement in the run. Against Appalachian State and Virginia Tech, it struggled to use the gap-blocking concepts that help fuel its power-spread scheme.
Both opponents slanted and angled their defensive linemen and forced the Tennessee run game to become a one-dimensional zone blocking system.
One zone concept the Vols have used is a stretch play in which the entire offensive line kick-steps in one direction, leaving one side of the defensive front unblocked and trying to outflank the defense.
Against Florida’s athletic linebacker corps, the design is flawed. Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone are athletic linebackers with great diagnose-and-attack instincts. They aren’t players who need to crash and shoot gaps in order to make up for a lack of athleticism. Their ability to sift through traffic and find the ball will make the stretch concept ineffective.
Moving the defense laterally in the passing game will be key. But on the ground, Tennessee cannot allow Florida’s linebackers to roam sideline to sideline and make plays without the ball advancing.
It may look one-dimensional, but hammering the ball inside, then utilizing play-action passes off that is the best way for Tennessee to use its run game.
4. Trick Plays/New Package
With a talent deficiency up front, Tennessee needs to find a way to steal a score with some kind of trick play or new package that it has kept under wraps — like the Vols did last year with a brilliantly executed double pass that led to a Dobbs receiving touchdown.
Dobbs’ athletic ability helps open up all kinds of creative options for the coaching staff. Like all trick plays, look for them at the start of a drive, when the opponent is least expecting them.
This matchup will come down to coaching, more so than the players. Tennessee simply does not have the horses up front that Florida does.