Tennessee’s record-breaking offense has been attempting to stay ahead of the competition this offseason.
As UT prepared to play Purdue at the Music City Bowl in December, offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said he was looking forward to film studies in June.
In January, as some SEC opponents were interviewing defense coordinator candidates, UT was exploring new offensive ideas to roll out in spring and August.
In March, Golesh said it was imperative for the Vols to develop ahead of their second trip through an SEC list, which begins against Florida in September.
“How do we grow and change when people have a year on us?” said Golesh. “There will be four new defense coordinators to play against. How will they attack us?”
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Golesh and coach Josh Heupel, who are helping develop the offense, want UT to stay ahead of their SEC competition. This is a different task depending on the opponent.
Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina will face the Vols with the same defensive coordinator as last season. LSU didn’t play UT in 2021, so that’s a new assignment.
But four recurring SEC adversaries — Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Vanderbilt — have new defense coordinators. Here’s what the staff at UT will find when researching these trainers and how it relates to the Vols.
Florida’s young coordinator wants to trick the Vols
Florida first-year coach Billy Napier brought Patrick Toney, his defensive coordinator from Louisiana, to The Swamp. Toney, 32, replaces veteran SEC defense coordinator Todd Grantham and specializes in coaching secondary schools.
Last season, Florida was often misaligned before the snap. So it’s odd that Toney would want to add deception to the scheme to confuse opposing offenses.
“You have to be able to dress up and let (the quarterback) decide after the snap what the coverage is, where the strengths and weaknesses are, and where the coverage issues are,” Toney said. “We’re going to try to build in a defense that will cause problems for the quarterback after the snap.”
In Florida’s trip to UT on Sept. 24, Toney will have to work fast if he’s going to fool quarterback Hendon Hooker before or after the snap. Last season, the Vols were college football’s fastest-acting offensive game, averaging 2.99 offensive games per minute.
Not much will change for Georgia if Will Muschamp intervenes
Former Florida and South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and 32-year-old Glenn Schumann will share the role of defensive coordinator, replacing new Oregon coach Dan Lanning.
The Bulldogs have few reasons to change from last season, when they conceded just 10.2 points per game with a punchy approach. Muschamp and Schumann, who were collaborators last season, will make changes, more of an overhaul of the scheme.
Last season, Georgia’s running lightning kept UT at 55 yards rushing, and the Vols were sacked six times. The Bulldogs increased their use of linebackers to apply pressure, and the return of Nolan Smith and Robert Beal Jr. will help them stick to that plan.
Scoring against Georgia seems more doable for UT than most teams. The Vols led Georgia 10-7 through a quarter last season. And they were the highest-scoring team in the first quarter in FBS (14.7 ppg), beating opponents 191-50 in 2021.
Both teams will study UT’s early success against Georgia. UT will try to extend it to the rest of the game for the November 5 matchup. Muschamp and Schumman will try to avoid UT’s fast pace being the first to be noticed.
For better or worse, Missouri’s defense can simplify
Blake Baker took over as Missouri defensive coordinator after longtime NFL coach Steve Wilks took a job with the Carolina Panthers. The Vols would have liked Wilks to stay since beating Missouri 62-24 last season.
Baker was LSU’s linebackers coach in 2021 after serving successfully as the defensive coordinator at Miami and Louisiana Tech. He will face UT on November 12th.
Stopping the run is a standard goal for most defensive coordinators, but Baker seems particularly focused on it. “Stop the run to have fun,” he often says.
It’s certainly an area for improvement given that Missouri ranked 124th out of 130 FBS teams in rush defense last season. The Vols rushed 458 yards against Missouri.
Baker said he wants to keep the fundamentals of the program intact, better develop players’ individual skills and not rely on the “most exotic third-down package or perfect play call.”
Simplifying the approach might work better against UT’s pace, which doesn’t leave much room for adjustment. But does Missouri have enough talent for Baker to rely on individuals?
Linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper, a part-time starter in Florida, and defensive lineman Tyrone Hopper, a former starter in North Carolina, were major additions to the portal. But there are still holes in the lineup that the Vols can exploit.
The Vanderbilt coordinator previously faced Hendon Hooker
Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea, Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator, turned to his second defensive coordinator in as many years. He lost Jesse Minter to Michigan and named Nick Howell his new defensive coordinator.
Howell spent the last nine seasons as defensive coordinator at Virginia and BYU under Bronco Mendenhall. So coaching under Lea – another defensive coach fixated on team culture – won’t be a problem.
UT’s use of Hooker and Howell’s approach to that use will be key to their November 26 game. The Vols look to expand their quarterback run game to take advantage of Hooker’s dual threat abilities.
Howell has seen this before. In 2019, Hooker monopolized the ball as Virginia Tech quarterback against Howell’s defense.
Hooker passed for 311 yards, rushed for 44 yards, and attempted either a pass or a rush on 51 of 75 offensive snaps. He gained yards but committed three turnovers, including a fumble in the end zone that proved Virginia’s game winner.
Hooker is still a key weapon. But his precision and better decision making on offense from UT should be a factor if he faces Howell again in the Vanderbilt game.
Reach Adam Sparks at [email protected] and on Twitter @AdamSparks.