It’s no secret that Tennessee’s defense has had plenty of woes this season and last, but the 2017 woes have overshadowed a key new component to a new-look Vol offense.
While the scheme and formations largely look the same, the guy calling the plays is a new one. Butch Jones promoted Larry Scott to offensive coordinator this offseason after a year with the Vols as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. Scott had never called a collegiate play before the Georgia Tech game — not even while spending the last half of the 2015 season as Miami’s interim head coach.
His changes to the program reconnected players to the coaching staff, encouraging his players to look at him as a person along with a coach. He changed the way the team practiced, prepared and more, but he’d never been in charge of making an offense go before this season.
You can’t imagine things set up the way Scott had wanted them to. The Vols lost world-beater and yard-eater Josh Dobbs, Josh Malone and Alvin Kamara to the NFL and replaced them all with plenty of inexperience. Things didn’t start so well in the season opener, either, after Tennessee put up just 94 yards of offense in the first half against Georgia Tech. New starter Quinten Dormady had 52 passing yards and the Vols faced a comeback bid without No. 1 wide receiver Jauan Jennings.
As we know, Tennessee settled in, leaning on a breakout game from Marquez Callaway and the ever-dependable John Kelly en route to a double-overtime victory. The offense looked more in control from the first snap against Indiana State, piling up 395 total yards and working in more young players to prepare for this week’s trip to Florida.
Florida’s defense is a huge step up
Despite the offensive improvements in Week 2, not much can properly prepare the Vols for the defensive upgrade they’ll see on Saturday. Florida may have given up more than 400 yards of offense to Michigan, but the Gator defense is plenty talented. Defensive end Cece Jefferson and cornerback Duke Dawson are two of best at their respective positions in the conference. Dawson had one of the Gators’ two pick-sixes against the Wolverines while Jefferson keyed the tenacious play of a defensive front that stymied Michigan’s run game early.
The Gators are a major step up in talent from Georgia Tech and Indiana State even after replacing NFL talents Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson, Jalen “Teez” Tabor and the injured Marcell Harris.
Jim McElwain hasn’t been the best recruiter in the SEC, but the Gators are stocked with young talent that most FBS teams would like to have. We’ll find out Saturday how ready that talent is for SEC play, but it has potential. The Vols have been strikingly average up front on offense, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Florida take advantage of it.
Tennessee’s offense is improving, but unproven
Tennessee isn’t unfamiliar with that. Scott has to rely on first-year starters at quarterback, running back, and nearly all of the Vols’ receiver spots. However, Scott and Dormady’s help is getting brighter by the week. Callaway has played like a star through two games while John Kelly has been nearly impossible to break down. The offensive line hasn’t been great, but it’s been mostly consistent, and Scott can certainly work with that.
On the flip side, Dormady hasn’t been so consistent. His deep balls haven’t connected to anyone but Callaway and his mid-range location has left plenty to be desired. Like the rest of the offense, he’s shown flashes, but hasn’t faced a defense or a venue like Florida’s. How will Tennessee’s offense respond in the first road game? We’ll find out quickly.
Kelly has been the most reliable weapon for the Vols on offense. Freshman Ty Chandler showed his explosive ability in a kick return touchdown against the Sycamores, but do Scott and Jones see the same potential in him at running back so early in his career? The third backfield guy in Carlin Fils-aime scored twice on the ground last week, but hasn’t done much (if anything) against quality opponents. Maybe Scott leans to Chandler to break out of the backfield more quickly than Fils-aime, or to get Kelly and Chandler more involved in the pass game.
What wrinkles can Scott offer the offense?
After Tennessee took a 27-14 lead in the fourth quarter of the rivalry’s 2015 game, Tennessee shut down the pass. Florida’s secondary was much better two years ago, but the Vols had trouble opening up just enough to earn those 27 points. Scott’s confidence in Dormady will be key Saturday. If he struggles to get going like he did against the Yellow Jackets, Tennessee won’t be left with many options. Florida will be ready to load the box and make Dormady beat the Gators deep, which is what they might do anyway. Can Scott find a way to get Dormady and the pass game going if the game plan doesn’t work through a quarter or two?
How creative can Scott be? We saw a trick play score in the Swamp two years ago, and I’ll imagine Scott and Jones will team up for a few tricks to give any edge to the Vols possible. Tennessee’s offense was pretty vanilla last week, so it seems as if the Vols tried to get by with a win without showing too many unique formations or plays to Florida on film. Could we see guys like Tyler Byrd and Josh Smith get involved in the run game? The Vols should try to spread the field, and they’ll need to be unique to do it.
The biggest potential upside to Scott is the different mindset he brings to playcalling. While last season’s offensive coordinator Mike DeBord could be a bit predictable, can Scott get away from screens on obvious downs and keep the Florida defense off guard? The Gators bring a lot of talent to the field, but it’s inexperienced talent. If Tennessee can take advantage of that to earn easy yards and points, the Vols could be in better shape than we think on Saturday.