KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s offense finds itself dealing with an identity crisis halfway through the season.
The Vols’ streak of 14 quarters without a touchdown dates back to the second quarter of a 17-13 win over UMass on Sept. 23. It has the Vols’ players frustrated, the staff on the verge of being fired and the fans airing their displeasure on social media.
Coach Butch Jones improved Tennessee’s scoring average each of his first four years, peaking last season with a school record for touchdowns and points scored.
Tennessee’s offense, however, has dropped off significantly in 2017 with the departure of quarterback Josh Dobbs, receiver Josh Malone and all-purpose back Alvin Kamara
The Vols (3-4) are currently:
• No. 125 in the nation (of 129 teams) in total offense (289.7 yards per game)
• No. 111 in the nation in passing offense (165.1 yards per game)
• No. 107 in the nation in rushing offense (124.6 yards per game)
• No. 117 in the nation in third-down conversion rate (31.3 percent).
Lack of continuity and consistency
“If you keep changing the pieces, how does anything get better? How does it ever grow? Continuity, and the idea of something being consistent, is critical in developing anything.”
Those were the words of Larry Scott upon his hiring as Tennessee’s new offensive coordinator in January.
The irony of Scott’s comments are obvious — as the root of the Vols’ offensive struggles this season lies in the lack of continuity at almost every position.
Tennessee has started five different offensive lines in the first seven games on account of injuries and matchup problems, such as in games against the nation’s No. 1 defense (Alabama) and No. 3 defense (Georgia).
The receiving corps has been inconsistent and unable to to justify a pass-first approach since go-to receiver Jauan Jennings suffered a season-ending wrist injury in the opener.
Dropped passes and imprecise route-running — combined with pass protection breakdowns — cost Tennessee red zone opportunities in last-second losses at Florida and to South Carolina.
The offensive struggles against UMass and Georgia led Jones to go from pocket-passing junior Quinten Dormady to dual-threat quarterback Jarrett Guarantano the last two games.
The move to the redshirt freshman QB has forced Jones to simplify the playbook, thereby affecting Scott’s philosophy to attack defense’s weaknesses with a variety of play calls and formations.
“It will continue to evolve,” Jones said of the offense leading into the Alabama game. “One of the things with a young quarterback is you don’t want to put too much on his plate early.”
Guarantano was in for the fight of his life against the Crimson Tide’s No. 1-ranked defense, and the numbers bore that out as he was sacked 4 times and the Vols generated just 108 yards — the lowest in at least 28 years, according to Rivals.com research.
“I’m going to have to step up and be the player I should be and I’m supposed to be,” Guarantano said.
Indeed, Guarantano’s longest completion against Alabama went for 12 yards, and he has completed 55.17 percent of his passes this season (Dormady is at 55.47 percent) with 1 touchdown and 1 interception in 58 attempts.
Frustration setting in
“Everybody is upset, (and) we’re mad at ourselves because we know we’re better than this,” said sophomore receiver Marquez Callaway, who opened the season with 4 catches for 115 yards against Georgia Tech but has just 11 catches in the past six games with less than 50 yards in each of those contests.
“We don’t play to our abilities, that’s why we’re upset.”
And that’s where it comes back to coaching, and especially to Jones, who played receiver at Ferris State and coached the position as he moved up in the ranks.
SEC Country asked Jones to explain the offensive struggles after the Alabama game.
“We have to execute, and it’s absolutely tearing me up we have second-and-goal at 1, and we jump offsides, and now it’s second-and-goal on the 6 and it was second and inches,” Jones said. “Those are things, that’s winning football and that’s discipline, and we’re not executing in those situations.
“Then, the ability to beat man coverage and protect the quarterback. I thought they controlled the line all day.”
Fifth-year senior Brett Kendrick summed it up after the loss to Alabama.
“Where are we not struggling right now? We have a lot of work to do,” Kendrick said. “It’s frustrating man, being a senior, with the success we’ve had in the past, and then this has hit us this year. It’s been frustrating
“This is something we have to overcome … everyone is so anxious to get in the end zone.”
Jones said there’s a need for more fine-tuning in practice, and then carrying that over into the game at Kentucky.
“We have to do a much better job in terms of our spacing and our rhythm, the ability to beat man coverage, all those things,” Jones said. “We make big plays in practice, and we have to be able to carry it over to game day, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that.”
The odds are against that trend changing this week according to the oddsmakers in Las Vegas.
The same casino experts that set Tennessee’s over/under at 7 1/2 wins have installed Kentucky as a 5 1/2-point favorite over the Vols in the Saturday night football game.
“It hurts a lot, we want to win,” Callaway said. “We’re hurt right now knowing we can win and we should win.”
Tennessee’s November schedule includes home games with Southern Miss (Nov. 4), LSU (Nov. 18) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 25) along with the Nov. 11 trip to Missouri.