By David Bradford
There was no more predictive game in college football last season than Florida State vs Ole Miss.
The Seminoles fell behind quickly to Hugh Freeze (RIP in peace) and the Rebels, but Florida State eventually overcame a 21-point deficit and won, 45-34.
What made the Seminoles’ rally so impressive was that it came from the arm of true freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, who pulled off his best Jameis Winston impression after the legend himself delivered a meme-worthy halftime decree.
Furthermore, Francois orchestrated this comeback after receiving one punishing blow after another, a surprising development considering Florida State returned every offensive lineman from the previous season. However, after the game, many (including myself) foolishly wrote the performance off and assumed the Seminoles’ offensive line would fix itself.
Florida State didn’t plummet the way Ole Miss would. They still beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl, but because their offensive line was the embodiment of a dumpster fire, the offense never discovered its potential.
That’s what the o-line can deliver. It’s the foundation of any offense. The unit that can catapult everything surrounding it to its apex, or leave it tedering on the edge of implosion.
Tennessee’s offensive line last season certainly didn’t provide the space dynamic athletes such as Joshua Dobbs and Alvin Kamara need on a consistent basis, but ignore those who viewed the front five as a weakness. Based on the stats (we’ll get to those), the Vols fielded an unspectacular offensive line, but a solid one, which in itself is an accomplishment considering the constant shuffling of players.
Although linemen may be viewed as the biggest meatheads on any football team, forming a functioning and cohesive offensive line is complex. That was Tennessee’s issue up front — there never was a chance for cohesion.
Luckily for the Vols, essentially everybody up front is returning, such as Jashon Robertson, Coleman Thomas, Brett Kendrick, Jack Jones, and Drew Richmond. Hell, maybe freshman sensation Trey Smith gets valuable reps.
Assuming full health, which almost never happens, here’s what expectations should be up front and what Tennessee should do to alleviate potential problems.
The fan base is clamoring over who the quarterback is going to be, but what’s truly important is how effectively Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano will be protected.
According to Football Outsiders, Tennessee’s offensive line ranked 58th in adjusted sack rate, which is calculated by taking sacks and dividing it by sacks plus pass attempts. With 100 being the absolute average, the Vols score of 102 indicates they were slightly above average in pass protection.
This is better news for Guarantano than Dormady given his mobility, which can overcompensate for missed blocking assignments. Should Tennessee opt to go with Dormady, then it’ll likely rely more on 3-step drops and pre-determined reads in order to simplify the game for the junior and avoid him reacting to pressure up the middle, a glaring issue from last season.
Depending on who starts, the offensive line will either replicate its role from last season — which is adjust to the quarterback’s mobility and find ways to block when the play breaks down — or will be forced to play technically sound in order for Dormady to feel comfortable in the pocket.
Either way, there are obvious challenges. The offensive line either has to get used to running upfield on Guarantano scrambles, or Butch and company will have to utilize as many blockers as possible (5 linemen, a tight end, and a running back) so Dormady’s development isn’t hindered by constant pressure. If the pressure isn’t there, then the running back or tight end should have the option to run short routes underneath.
Run blocking was actually an area of strength for Tennessee last season. According to Football Outsiders, the Vols ranked 34th in opportunity rate , which determines what percentage of running plays resulted in five-yard gains or more when five yards were available. This doesn’t imply that run blocking was all fine and dandy because there were pockets of time where Tennessee’s offensive line couldn’t provide the holes to allow those opportunities.
Then again, we can trace those struggles to play-calling. Take the Alabama game for example, which the Vols lost 49-10 at home. It’s a death wish to challenge the Crimson Tide at the heart of their defense — the interior — but Tennessee did that anyway.
Breaking News: It failed miserably.
Then, there was the hopeless attempt at turning Jalen Hurd into a superstar. Regardless of your feelings toward Hurd prior to last season, he never should’ve been the featured back. At 6-foot-4, he was an easy target to bring down and wasn’t agile enough in pass protection. Because we have yet to discover a way to travel back in time and alter our decisions, Butch can only live and learn from his mistakes.
John Kelly is the top running back heading into 2017, and although he is a power runner like Hurd was, he ran with a tenacity the now-Baylor tight end lacked. The former 3-star prospect out of Michigan knew how to gain yards after contact, which is a dream for any offense.
But in order for Kelly to remain effective, the Vols can’t insanely run him into brick walls. SEC front sevens are ferocious enough, so they’ll have to identify the weakness and send Kelly in that direction. This means instead of simple dive handoffs, maybe incorporate counters when Dormady is under center, or utilize him in read options if Guarantano gets the nod. Regardless of who the quarterback is, I prefer running backs not ram into impenetrable forces. Instead, have tackles or guards pull and guide them downfield.
At the end of the day, the performance of the offensive line and its execution depends largely on the quarterback. Because Dormady and Guarantano rest on different ends of the spectrum, this means Tennessee’s line has to be versatile.
And given their collective experience, there’s no reason the offensive line shouldn’t be up for the challenge.