Co-written by Nathan Odom
Cook: Yes. On the outside, it seems like things are starting to turn around for Tennessee football this season. The Vols are 5-2, the only losses coming from an Alabama team that’s won 19 straight and undefeated No. 6 Texas A&M.
However, despite the record, the long-awaited win against rival Florida and a Hail Mary against Georgia, I still feel a bit of uncertainty about some aspects of the Vols. One of those aspects is the offense — more specifically, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. Is he actually the guy Tennessee needs to be running the offense? I don’t think so, and there are many Volunteer football fanatics that agree.
It’s not that he is a bad coordinator —he obviously wouldn’t be a coordinator in the SEC if he was — I just frankly don’t think he is a good one, let alone one who can potentially lead a national championship offense. To win a national title, you have to be able to risk it for the biscuit. Offensive coordinators can’t be over-conservative while expecting the defense to keep the team close the whole game.
Odom: No. Tennessee’s offensive problems for the past two years haven’t been a fault of Mike DeBord’s. Can it sometimes be obvious he hadn’t coached college football in almost a decade before coming to Tennessee? Sure. But Tennessee’s offensive problems have been rooted around the offensive line.
This season, injuries have decimated the Vols. Against top-ranked Alabama, the Vols had one starter available. That starter, Coleman Thomas, has arguably been Tennessee’s worst starter. The Crimson Tide did their part to exploit that group, and other defensive fronts have as well. Much of Vol Nation’s complaints have been centered around conservative play calling, which is understandable, but your options are limited with a struggling or injured offensive line.
Cook: There’s no question injuries have been the Vols’ Achilles Heel thus far. But good teams—better yet, good coaches—discover ways to win. When your starting running back who entered the season with Heisman potential is continuously running up the middle for minimal gains, the blame has to go on the coordinator. Remember those videos of Jalen Hurd running on incline treadmills at 19 miles per hour and running on a flat treadmill at a mind-boggling 23 miles per hour? Why not put him in situations where he can use his speed instead of placing Dobbs in the shotgun and letting Hurd hit the two gap with a mediocre/banged-up offensive line?
This is an over-exaggeration, but it appears as if there have been a total of maybe five runs the entire season that haven’t been a halfback dive. In the SEC, you have to establish a strong ground game to survive. Alabama rushed for over 400 yards last weekend against Tennessee. The Vols turned the ball over seven times against Texas A&M, but forced double overtime because Alvin Kamara, John Kelly and Josh Dobbs combined for nearly 300 yards on the ground.
This bring me to my next point. Tennessee has arguably one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks. So why doesn’t DeBord not utilize Dobbs’ legs in the first half of games? It’s no secret Dobbs’ legs are a lethal weapon, especially in the read option. So why don’t the Vols play a little less predictably on offense? Instead of Dobbs handing the ball of to Hurd up the middle 90 percent of the time, let him keep the ball.
Odom: I don’t disagree that DeBord might benefit from running Dobbs more, but consider what happens if Dobbs gets injured. With Alvin Kamara out, Tennessee would be looking at a backfield of Quinten Dormady, Hurd and Kelly. There isn’t a lot of experience to go around there.
As far as creative runs go with Hurd, what more can DeBord offer? Last year, nearly all Hurd’s longest runs came within the tackles. That’s where he makes his living. When almost the entire starting line is out with injuries, it’s not going to be as productive for Hurd.
However, you countered one of your points about the running game with its own counter point — Tennessee rushed for nearly 300 yards against Texas A&M. Now, I’d argue that those yards say more about the Aggies’ defense than the Vols’ offense, but you don’t put up those kind of numbers against a top-10 team often. DeBord stuck to his guns and felt out the A&M defense to bring Tennessee back into that game.
Back to injuries: Hurd isn’t going to get the blocking he needs on outside runs because of the current offensive line platoon. Last year, Tennessee’s rushing attack was 20th in the nation. Under DeBord, The Vols have scored 20 or more points in all but three games. When Tennessee’s offensive line situation improves, then we can talk about analyzing what DeBord does.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image by Sumner Gilliam