What a play. Nearly everyone had written off the Vols after Jacob Eason’s touchdown pass put the Georgia Bulldogs up 31-28 with ten seconds left, but Josh Dobbs and Jauan Jennings wouldn’t be denied. Coach Butch Jones called the Hail Mary with four seconds remaining, and the Vols executed the play perfectly.
Dobbs, the senior quarterback from Alpharetta, Georgia will finish his career 2-0 as the starter against his hometown Bulldogs. Jennings’ spectacular catch keeps the Vols’ undefeated season alive, and he will go down in Volunteer history forever.
But before we look at the play that changed the Vols’ season, let’s look at how Tennessee set up the Hail Mary.
After Georgia’s touchdown, defensive back Rico McGraw ran on the field without a helmet in celebration. By rule, that is unsportsmanlike conduct, and Georgia was penalized 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff. Now, instead of kicking off from the 35, Georgia would kickoff from their own 20.
Tennessee lined up in a rather unconventional kick return formation. Rather than line up in a traditional formation, the Vols lined up with 10 players on Georgia’s side of midfield, with only Evan Berry deep.
(Not pictured below are Jauan Jennings and Josh Malone, just off the screen to the near side, and Berry, back deep)
The formation resembled what you would expect if you were facing an onside kick, and the personnel matched what you would expect on the hands team. Berry was joined by receivers Malone and Jennings, tight ends Jason Croom and Ethan Wolf, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, safety Todd Kelly Jr., and linebackers Colton Jumper and Cortez McDowell. (I’ve yet to see a shot with an angle to I.D. the eleventh player on the field).
However, Butch Jones clarified that the Vols were not expecting an onside kick. “It was not our hands team. It was comprised of a lot of skill players on the field, but it was not a hands team… This was a different type of return anticipating different types of kicks so you can adapt and adjust to it at the end of the game.”
So what is the benefit of lining up in this unorthodox formation with skill players on the field at the end of the game?
First, the Volunteers formation effectively kept Georgia from squib kicking. Kelly Jr. and Jumper lined up at the 35 yard line in the middle of the field. Had Georgia attempted a low squib kick, either of them could’ve grabbed the ball and took off running up the middle with outstanding field position. By putting so many skill players on the field, the Vols were well equipped to handle a squib.
Next to a squib, the next best option in an end-of-game situation is a sky kick. Sure enough, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and special teams coordinator Shane Beamer called for a sky kick in an effort to, as Smart said after the game, “get it away from the best returner in the country.”
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the Vols’ formation meant that the ball would be headed right towards the All-American returner. Berry lined up at the 15 yard line, ready to sprint up and field the ball, no matter which direction it was kicked. With Berry as the only Vol past midfield, there would be no upbacks who might try to field the ball. By sending Berry back by himself, the Vols could ensure that the ball would end up in the hands of the best kick returner in America.
The only way Georgia could’ve avoided kicking to Berry would be to boot it out of bounds or kick it very short. The Vols had their top two receivers, Malone, and Jennings, lined up between the 45-50 yard lines to the left side of the field, in position to field a short kick and give Tennessee outstanding field position.
Georgia kicked the ball towards the left sideline, and Berry came sprinting up to field the ball on the run at the 32. The Vols appeared to be setting up a wall return back to the right. The blocking wasn’t great, but Berry ran through a few tackles on his way to the Georgia 48 yard line.
Going with this return was a smart play for the Vols. In a regular formation, Berry likely would not have been in position to field the ball. Georgia would’ve simply kicked to an upback, likely a tight end or linebacker, who almost certainly would not have been able to return the ball to midfield. By leaving Berry as the only man deep and taking away the squib kick by alignment, the Vols forced Georgia to either kick the ball out of bounds or kick to the All-American. Doing so enabled a big return that put the Vols in range for Dobbs to throw to the end zone.
After the game, Butch Jones said, “That was a kickoff return that we put in (for) the end of (a) game, and we’ve had it in for three years and never used it. To our kids’ credit, we rep it every Thursday, and we were able to get it (today), and it put us at midfield range where you could throw a Hail Mary.”
Coach Jones also gave assistant coach Robert Gillespie a lot of credit, saying he was instrumental in making sure the team was prepared for the return.
That is a great example of situational football by Jones and the Vols. For years, they had been preparing for an end-of-game kick return situation and had a play already planned out. When the time came, Jones knew exactly what play to go to, and the team was ready to execute.
To add insult to injury for the Bulldogs, Georgia was offsides on the kick. Tennessee was able to add the penalty to the end of the return, moving the ball from the Georgia 48 to the 43.
Now, with only four seconds left, Tennessee was down to one final snap. There would be no time for a quick pass to get the ball in field goal range. The only viable option would be to throw to the end zone.
Originally, the Vols lined up in a trips left formation. Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf, and Josh Smith were split wide to the left, and Jennings was the single receiver to the right. Alvin Kamara was beside Dobbs in the backfield.
Tennessee saw the look Georgia was in and used their first timeout. In the huddle, Coach Jones kept the play call the same. The Vols would still throw a Hail Mary from their trips formation. However, wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni decided to make some personnel changes.
Azzanni flipped Jennings and Malone, putting Jennings to the strongside of the formation. Azzanni also removed Wolf from the game, putting the 6’5” Jason Croom in his spot.
Once the Vols broke the huddle and returned to the field, they saw how the Bulldogs were planning to defend the play. Georgia lined up with three defensive linemen in the game set to rush Dobbs. Four defensive backs lined up close to the line of scrimmage, clearly playing man coverage on the four Tennessee receivers.
Three defenders were in the end zone, evenly spaced across the field. Finally, Lorenzo Carter (#7), Georgia’s star 6’6” linebacker was playing the “jumper” role. Carter (yellow circle below) is the key player for the defense. He is an “extra” defender whose only assignment is to track the ball and jump up to bat it down at its highest point. Carter aligned at roughly a 7 yard depth in the end zone.
For Georgia, the outside corner to the strong side is playing with outside leverage, while the slot corners play with inside leverage. The hope is to bunch all of the Vols’ receivers together. Georgia wants the end zone to become a cluttered mess with all the receivers in the same spot. That plays to their advantage because they will have more defenders (eight) than the Vols will have receivers (four).
The backside safety stayed over the top of Malone, ready to help out should the Vols decide to throw to the single receiver side. The other two safeties, Quincy Mauger (#20) and Dominick Sanders (#24). are funneling the ball on the strong side, each one attempting to keep the ball inside of them.
Carter’s job is to simply go to the ball. As the tallest defender on the field, he has to be able to go up over everyone and get his hands on the ball.
When you consider the two safeties plus Carter, Georgia has three defenders in the end zone funneling the ball. Add three players in man coverage, and the Bulldogs outnumber the Vols six-to-three on the strongside.
The Vols had actually designed the play to go to Croom. He was their “jumper” or “middle man.” Dobbs is aiming to throw the ball to Croom, whose job is to go up and catch the ball at its highest point. Jennings is the “back man,” designated to get ahead of Croom and be ready to make a play on a tip. Josh Smith’s assignment was to trail behind Jennings and Croom, also looking for the tip. Josh Malone was to cross the field from the weakside and be in position to catch the ball off a deflection towards the middle of the field.
For the Vols, the first aspect of the play is the pass protection. The offensive line must give Dobbs a clean pocket and time to throw. The line, which has been maligned at times this year, came up big when it mattered most. With only three pass rushers, the Vols’ five linemen, plus Kamara, were able to double team each defender. None of the rushers even came close to Dobbs, giving him time to step into his throw. This is the most underrated aspect of the play.
Dobbs, with a clean pocket, was able to throw a beautiful ball. Far too often, games end with receivers never getting a chance to make a play on the ball because the pass is inaccurate. Here, Dobbs threw a nice, high spiral and gave his receivers a chance to make a play. He also timed his throw perfectly. The ball arrived in the end zone just after the receivers did, giving the Vols the best chance to make a play.
You can see here how the Vols’ had their receivers aligned in the end zone. Jennings was the deepest receiver, Croom was the “middle man,” and Smith was trailing behind, but all three receivers had their eyes on the ball.
Carter is, once again, circled in yellow. Remember how he lined up seven yards deep in the end zone? So far back, he never had a chance to knock the ball down. Had he lined up five yards closer to the line of scrimmage, he very well might’ve knocked the ball down. Instead, he got caught behind the play and never had a chance.
This ends up being the key to the play. The man Georgia assigned to track the ball and knock it down never made it to the ball because he lined up too deep in the end zone and didn’t move up quick enough.
Cornerback Deandre Baker (#18), the defender assigned to Jennings, ended up well behind the play after getting caught up in traffic.
The only two defenders that had a chance at the ball were the two safeties, Mauger and Sanders. Both defenders are listed at 6’0″, and both were overmatched versus the bigger, stronger Jennings.
Even though he wasn’t the designated receiver, Jennings saw the ball coming his way and went up for the catch. Mauger and Sanders leaped from either side, but Carter and Baker never came close to the ball. Jennings had the best position out of any player on either team.
You can also see that Smith is in a pretty good position as the trailer to respond to the ball should it be deflected towards him. If it had been tipped to Smith’s right, he would’ve at least had a chance.
Jennings showed off his athleticism by going up and getting the ball at its highest point, and he showed off his strength by securing it in midair. What a catch.
At the end of the day, football comes down to execution. Players win games. And in this case, Jennings went out on the field and won the game. Butch Jones and Kirby Smart can draw up this play on the sideline all day long, but one of the players, either a receiver or defender, has to go up and win. And on this snap, Jennings wasn’t going to be denied. And his reward? A 5-0 record for the Vols.
Editor’s Note: Seth Price writes Vols Film Study weekly for FOX Sports Knoxville. You can see more of his work at Football Concepts. He is also the author of Fast and Furious: Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteer’s Offense, which is available on Amazon.com.