September 10, 2008

Vols trying to identify offense

Tennessee's offense under first-year coordinator Dave Clawson has been gleefully dubbed the "Clawfense," "Rocky Top Coast" and a handful of other monikers.

A better label, one game into the 2008 campaign, might be the "John Doe Offense." On the heels of a 27-24 season-opening loss at UCLA Sept. 1 and going into Saturday's home opener (12:30 p.m., RayCom) against UAB (0-2), the Vols find themselves still seeking their offensive personality. Clawson's pitching his theory.

"What's your fastball? What are you good at? There's your starting point, and then you build it from there," said the former I-AA Coach of the Year who took over the Vols offense in January. "I think that's what you learn in the start of the season, what can you get consistently good at and then you build your base offense around that and your changeups come off of that."

If passes are fastballs, Tennessee was heavy on those at UCLA. Against the Bruins, Tennessee registered 42 pass attempts for 189 yards and 34 running plays for 177 net yards. Yet even those figures, Clawson said, don't reveal the whole story. At least five offensive penalties, some instances of miscommunication in the huddle and flat-out busted plays denied the Vols more opportunities to run the football.

"Oh, probably another 8 to 10 if we just wouldn't have gotten ourselves off schedule," Clawson said of called run plays that died in the Pasadena Triangle of the Vols' huddle, line of scrimmage and execution. "I would have run the ball a lot more."

Part of Tennessee's opting to not run the ball more also stems from the Bruins' brazen defense that crowded the line of scrimmage and dared the Vols, with Jonathan Crompton at quarterback, to beat them with deep passes. Such is the rub of working toward an identity without being stubborn to a fault.

"If it were that easy, it would be a different kind of thing," said of Fulmer of determining an offensive identity. "It depends on how people try to play you, and we ran several really good running plays into pressure and backs made the safeties miss. It depends on who the safeties are and so on and so on. So to answer the question: how are they trying to defend you, and what is your advantage that you can gain? People do what they do and lock up and try to play man-to-man, you need to make them pay. One or two of those deep balls would have made a tremendous difference in the ballgame."

Though the Vols aren't likely to create a steadfast identity -- this isn't Face book -- on Saturday against the Blazers, offensive guard Vladimir Richard has an idea of what Tennessee ultimately will establish to anchor its offense.

"I think it's going to be running the ball. We were running the ball pretty good against UCLA. Our backs were averaging 5-point-something yards per carry, and one of them was averaging like 6.9," Richard said of Montario Hardesty and Arian Foster, who accounted for 162 rushing yards on just 25 totes against UCLA. "You could tell that we were moving the ball, we were running. I just felt like we were making mistakes but that coach probably had more running plays called. A false start here, mistakes there. He probably had to change his play calling. It's just put upon us, and we have to minimize those mistakes, eliminate them period, and coach will keep calling more run plays. Because I don't feel that they were really able to stop the run, we were having good movement and hats were on hats.

"We've got great backs that can make people miss. I think that we're an older offensive line, stronger, faster and we're in such great shape. People will see that we will run the football and we will run the ball in the way that the Tennessee offensive line should be able to."

The Vols passed on five of their first six first-down plays to open the game at UCLA and followed up with 11 passing plays on 12 second-half second down situations. Still, many of those second-half calls were the result of the offense's circumstances; eight times Tennessee faced second-and-8 or more in that contest.

"You look at the numbers, it's easy to say we should've ran the ball more," said Clawson, who is adjusting to life in the coaches' box upstairs after several years calling plays on the sidelines as head coach. "With what UCLA was doing on defense and what they had coming back, from a personnel standpoint, two defensive tackles who are NFL prospects … they graduated their entire secondary except one guy. Certainly from a personnel standpoint going in, we thought we would have some favorable matchups going in. We felt going into the game in order to run that we would have to throw early to loosen them up a little bit.

"We actually threw the ball better earlier than later (when Crompton hit five of his first eight passes but finished 19 of 42 with one interception). (UCLA) gave us looks we have to be able to throw against. We didn't execute the passing game as efficiently or effectively as needed to."

A former Georgia assistant, UAB coach Neil Callaway believes he's got Tennessee's offensive identity pegged.

"After watching them, the most impressive thing I thought were the two running backs," said Callaway, Georgia's offensive coordinator of six years before taking over at UAB after the '06 season. "They look like they are about as good as you are going to get. It's something we are going to have to recognize."

Blazers linebacker Keon Harris already does.

"Coming into Tulsa, we didn't really know what to expect because of all the trick plays that they have. We know what to expect more with Tennessee," said Harris. "Tennessee is going to try to run it down your throat. They play traditional, smash-mouth football."

Clawson sees it slightly differently.

"I really thought that probably the ability to have a short, control passing game and I also thought the play-action passing game had the ability to get behind people," he said of what he thought would be the unit's focal points this season. "I thought it was going to be a mix. I didn't think we could just go in there and say we're a hardhat team. I didn't think we could just say, 'Hey, we're going to throw it 60 times a game.'

"I thought we were a team that would have to have balance, and I still feel that way."

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