Two years ago, the Tennessee Volunteers' hire of the former UCF athletic director, Danny White, led to the controversial hire of UCF's former head coach, Josh Heupel. Most Tennessee fans, and media analysts, were unsure of whether his high-octane offense would work in the SEC, a very physical level of college football. After all, the SEC is arguably the highest level of college football.
Offensive-minded coaches with unique schemes have swept through the SEC before, many not panning out the way the hiring school envisioned. Joe Moorhead failed at Mississippi State after strumming together a good offense at Penn State. Butch Jones failed at Tennessee. Chad Morris failed at Arkansas. It's a tough conference to play in, and a coach has to have an understanding of how the conference operates.
While Heupel was taking over the program, Tennessee was bleeding players into the transfer portal. Thirty-five players transferred out of the program following the sacking of Jeremy Pruitt, a number not ever seen from a single program.
The enormity of this project cannot be understated. This was a tremendous task for a coach to undertake - to retain an incoming recruiting class while losing half of the remaining team.
Not only has Heupel proven up to the challenge, but Tennessee also finished last season with a 7-6 record and stayed with their annual rival, Alabama, for three quarters. There were positive signs, and the team showed grit and determination and was ultimately competitive.
Now, with a 7-0 start headed into the week against Kentucky, ranked third in the country, they are the nation's talk.
Let's get into the scheme itself - it's a modified spread offense.
Josh Heupel's scheme is unique despite the fact that at its core it is still a spread-style attack - which 90% of college offenses are currently running, and most pro teams have incorporated philosophies and schemes into their playbooks. However, it is the combination of philosophies and playcalling tendencies that make it so incredibly unique.
Tennessee's offense would be best described as a zone run, vertical spread offense. Let's talk a bit about what that means. Tennessee doesn't run a lot of gap scheme runs, where the hole is designed to be opened at a certain spot. They run zone schemes. That means that the running back reads the line of scrimmage and looks for the best hole that's opened up on every single play.
A vertical spread means that the passing plays tend to stretch the field vertically with deep routes trying to stretch the defense thin. Tennessee does that extremely well with their wide splits - very difficult to defend against.
How wide splits challenge defenses
"Wide splits" are when offenses line up wide receivers on the other side of the numbers. It forces the defense, oftentimes, into a man coverage situation and the space between the plays alienates the defensive backs on the perimeter from being able to provide much support against the run.
It also amplifies any mistakes that they might make in coverage. More space creates more opportunity for a smart quarterback to torch them.
The whole idea of the wide splits is to limit the defense from who they can put in the box. When a team wants to run the football, the defense responds by putting as many defenders into the box as they can, outnumbering the blockers. The side splits and deep threat of the perimeter receivers limit the support those defenders can offer on the boundaries - so if a run play is bounced to the outside, they still have a lot of space to maneuver.
That's how this offense is primarily designed - lots of space and spreading the defense out.
When most people have seen Tennessee highlights this year, they have been big passing plays. A spread offense tends to lean more toward the passing game, but Tennessee is actually a run-first team.
Through the first seven games, Tennessee has attempted 307 run plays to 237 pass plays - about a 60%/40% ratio in favor of the run. Most of the base plays in the Tennessee offense are designed to act as runs - quick screens to the perimeter, inside zone runs, and quarterback draws. Most of the foundation of the offense is constructed on this principle.
What makes them start to become very difficult is when they start running with tempo. It's a flurry of strikes - think of an MMA fighter delivering several punches, kicks, and blows from different directions to get the target moving in many different directions to defend against various strike areas. Then, once the target is dazed - the knockout blow comes.
Tennessee uses this same philosophy with the quick throws, the quarterback draws, and the zone runs inside and out. They want to create that dread on the defensive side where defenders don't know where the next shot is coming from. With the plays coming so fast and so quick, it forces the defense to react quickly to everything as they attempt to make up for the fatigue - that's when Tennessee gets involved with their vertical attack and strikes with their deep shot.
Every scheme is best performed with the right personnel, and play-callers have to account for the personnel that they have on the field and play to those players' strengths. Right now, Tennessee's scheme fits their players extremely well.
For starters, you must have a strong-armed quarterback who can run the ball and push the ball to the perimeter. The wide splits make it harder for quarterbacks - who have to be able to push the ball with velocity and accuracy to the boundary. Hendon Hooker has been perfect for that. They have a five-star recruit currently committed, Nico Iamaleava, who looks like he can do it too.
At wide receiver and running back, you need athletes who have pure speed. The more speed that Tennessee has, the better. With the offense designed to create so much space, speed gets lost. That's been the tendency across all of college football for years. Receivers like Jaylen Hyatt, Charles Tillman, and Bru McCoy, all sub 4.4 forty-yard-dash prospects, have thrived in this system.
The offensive linemen all have to be agile. They build upon their agility and work on building up their stamina to run the quick tempo and maintain their leverage throughout drives. Last season, this was an issue as they couldn't handle the quick tempo and had to end drives with a kick at around seven to eight plays deep. This year, they've been ready for it and can attack with ten to twelve play drives.
It's a fun offense, and I love watching it in action. No one has figured out a way to slow it down yet, and they very well may find themselves running the SEC East over the next few years. Recruits seem to like it too, as the Vols are one of the most talked about teams on the trail.
Later this week, I will get deeper into the schemes and different concepts that Tennessee runs to utilize all of the different players on the team.