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A Revamped Quarterback and Red Zone Attack Will Be Crucial for Tennessee’s Offense

Success in the red zone has not been the calling card for the Vols’ offense as of late, but that could be changing soon as seen by the various endzone drills during spring practice.

During Tennessee’s open practice on Saturday, the offensive unit spent a good amount of time working on red-zone throws using the quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends in various situations.

For those wondering, the red zone in football is marked as the area in-between the 20-yard-line and the goal-line. 

All three quarterbacks, Hendon Hooker, Brian Maurer, and Harrison Bailey, spent time working on different scoring routes with multiple targets. They ran both plays against the defense as well as plays against the air.

Maybe coach Heupel wanted to give the fans something exciting to look at, sure, but it also makes sense that efficiency near the endzone will likely be one of the main things that can help a quarterback separate himself from the pack.

Judging by his track record at UCF, coach Heupel’s offense will be up to the execution of the quarterback as to whether they can succeed in scoring points in limited space next season.

One way or another, Tennessee will need to be as efficient as possible in the red zone, and the quarterback has everything to do with that.

There’s Only Room to Grow

Fans were welcomed back to Neyland Stadium on Saturday morning during the Vols first open practice, and the offense sure gave them something to get excited about.

Offensive plays in the endzone.

Frankly, that’s not something Tennessee fans have seen a lot of in recent years. During the 2020 season, offensive coordinator Jim Cheney chalked up the No. 112 ranked red zone offense among FBS teams.

In total, Tennessee found themselves in the red zone 23 times last season. That would be the tenth fewest attempts of any team at the FBS level. Out of those trips, 12 resulted in rushing touchdowns. While impressive, the other two phases of the offense couldn’t have been more abysmal.

Out of the remaining 11 trips to the red zone, the Vols offense managed to only score through the air three times and kicked two field goals.

The Vols’ .739 scoring percentage was only better than 15 teams in FBS football last year. Only six of those teams played more than eight games in the season.

For Tennessee though, all those numbers and all those failures are a thing of the past. And a brand new unit looks to correct the course from last year. But it is important to note why Tennessee was so bad in the red zone. They couldn’t make it there in the first place, and no passing threat completely handcuffed the playbook.

Spring Practice Drills Tell The Story

During the open practice, the quarterbacks all shared equal reps but did go through each drill in a distinct order. It almost always went Hooker, Maurer, and then Bailey.

The entire quarterback group spent a lot of time working through skeleton endzone drills before matching up against the defense in 11-on-11 work.

“All three of them took care of the football and allowed us to move the football at times as well,” Heupel said after open practice on Saturday. “So, they’re picking it up, never where you want it to be. You’re always pushing to be further ahead, but they are a competitive group that approaches the meeting room and the practice field the right way.”

There was a balance between the styles of the drills. The quarterbacks worked through a number of different things drills throughout practice. These included upright pocket passing and rolling out while throwing on the move.

It wasn’t hard to tell that the Vols coaching staff were evaluating the precision of each quarterback. Considering the athleticism of college defenders, and the limited space to work with, the quarterback that gives you the best chance to score is the one that can be the most accurate.

Each quarterback ran rollout drills and hit Tennessee receivers at various spots as they often ran corner- or out-routes against the air. It even seemed like at times quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle had them alternating between the sharp on-a-rope throws and lofty passes to the corner.

During his introductory press conference at Tennessee back in February, Halzle talked about his desire to find a quarterback that they fully trust. One who can go out there and control a game with his arm.

“We are going to let you rip it,” Halzle said during his opening meeting with the media. “We are going to let you rip it all over the field. We are going to teach you. We are going to mold you into the best you can be, and then we are going to turn you loose to go play ball on Saturdays. We don’t make guys play scared.”

Each quarterback had some really crisp throws to the endzone, but all did show a few areas that need to be developed.

Hooker looked than most natural rolling out of the pocket, which was especially evident when the defenders took the field. He looked comfortable throwing on the run and made some impressive passes throughout the morning. 

Maurer, on the other hand, certainly had the most zip on his ball and pop to his step, as the current redshirt sophomore danced through the drills with a little bit of swagger to his play.

Heupel’s Stellar Track Record

Athletic director Danny White knew he had to flip the program on its head when he first took the job. Getting an offensive-minded coach was certainly one of the best ways to do that.

Comparing the UCF red zone offense under Heupel to the red zone offense under Pruitt is truly night and day.

Where Tennessee struggled to even accumulate a substantial amount of red-zone trips, UCF boasted a total of 55. One shy of doubling the amount from Tennessee.

Not to mention, where Tennessee found little success in throwing the ball, UCF shined. In total, UCF’s offense accounted for 55 total red-zone trips. In those, they had 19 rushing scores, 18 passing scores, and 12 kicking scores. That accounts for six total trips without any points. For context, Tennessee had the same in 22 fewer attempts.

Again, the nice thing is, not one of those stats from Tennessee matters going into next year. But the UCF stats are a different story.

During his introductory press conference on Jan. 27, Heupel spoke about carrying over his offensive philosophy that worked so well at UCF. He also spoke about the things that Tennessee will make sure to do in his inaugural season.

“We’re going to play with tempo here,” Heupel said to the media. “We’re going to be the aggressor. We’re going to play with our skill players out in space. We’re going to give them an opportunity to push the football down the field.”

Heupel’s offenses in the red zone are precise, methodical, and disruptive. His offense is created around doing the unexpected once they get into scoring territory, and always keeping the defenders on their toes.

“At the same time,” Heupel continued on to say during his first press conference. “If you really watch what we do, we’re extremely balanced in our approach as far as run and pass. We want to be physical and we want to dominate the line of scrimmage. Those are all things that are going to translate to what we’re doing here in Knoxville.”

In 2020, the Knights posted the eighth-most points per game in the country at 42.2 per game. With 422 total points, Heupel’s offense also ranked No. 8 in the country in total points as well.

It’s clear to see that coach Heupel is going to bring a strong and smart offensive mindset to Tennessee. Especially when it comes to scoring in the red zone. But with the coaching staff still trying to evaluate these quarterbacks here early in the spring, having a quality showing around the endzone is poised to be one of the biggest separating factors of the competition.

Spring practice will conclude with the Orange and White game, which will give the best look at each quarterback in an in-game type of scenario. The Orange and White game will take place Saturday, Apr. 24 at 4:00 pm E.T.

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