Tennessee Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Vols to Improve in 2015
After making and winning a January bowl game this past season, Tennessee football enters the 2015 offseason with high aspirations.
With the amount of talent head coach Butch Jones is assembling in Knoxville, it's no surprise that expectations are quickly increasing for a team that just ended a streak of four losing seasons in a row.
While most pegged the year the Vols would return to national relevance as 2016, the offense's explosive potential, as well the defense's surprising turnaround, make 2015 look like just as good of a year as any for Tennessee to make noise in the SEC.
But if the Vols want to return to Atlanta for their first conference championship game since 2007, this young team needs to improve in a few key areas. Make no mistake: Tennessee will be a much better team in 2015 than it was in 2014, but the Vols aren't out of the woods just yet.
Here are five things the Vols need to improve before the 2015 season kicks off that could mean the difference between hoping for bowl eligibility in late November and comfortably reaching it before the leaves are finished changing colors in the Smoky Mountains.
There's no greater need for the Vols in 2015 than improved pass protection.
Tennessee's offensive line was absolutely abysmal at protecting Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman throughout the season. The unit allowed 43 sacks in 2014, which was bad enough for No. 117 in the country, per NCAA.com statistics.
The emergence of Joshua Dobbs at quarterback alleviated some of the pressure on the inexperienced and young unit, but offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian can't rely on Dobbs to simply take off every time he feels pressured in the pocket next year.
Furthermore, Dobbs is unlikely to last an entire season running the ball 10-plus times per game and scrambling for his life due to busted protection.
Although he's certainly capable of making big plays with his feet, Dobbs' skill set is still suited toward being a dropback passer, but without adequate time to make his reads, he'll never reach his full potential at the quarterback position.
The Vols return everyone on the offensive line in 2015 except Jacob Gilliam, and a full year of starting experience should mean the unit will improve across the board next season.
Dobbs' elusiveness means the unit doesn't necessarily have to be elite for Tennessee to put points on the board—but it does need to settle in somewhere around the middle of the conference in effectiveness for the offense to flourish.
Although this also ties into Tennessee's poor offensive line play in 2014, the lack of a deep-ball threat made the Vols offense somewhat predictable and much less explosive than its overall potential this season.
Neither Worley nor Dobbs were effective at hitting receivers down field on a regular basis, as both frequently under or overthrew their targets and let would-be huge gains and touchdowns fall incomplete.
Dobbs has the arm strength to make deep throws even on the run, but he's also a sure bet to throw a couple of wildly inaccurate passes to receivers with nary a defender in sight in nearly every game.
No one knows the highs and lows that come with Dobbs taking snaps under center better than head coach Butch Jones. He told reporters that for Dobbs to ultimately be successful, "he has to play with great consistency, day in and day out."
Jones knows, as does perhaps every college football analyst in America, that Dobbs has the potential to be an elite quarterback if he can improve his accuracy and start completing long passes with consistency.
With another offseason to work with his receivers—and his first as the de facto starting quarterback—Dobbs should make great strides as a passer and enter 2015 with even more confidence in his abilities.
Giving Up Big Plays on Defense
The Vols did well to limit big plays on defense throughout most of the season, but a trio of superstars in Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper and Pharoh Cooper made the entire defensive unit look silly on multiple occasions.
To be fair, Tennessee is light-years ahead of where it was in 2012 when it seemed like opposing offensive coordinators could convert on 3rd- and even 4th-and-long without breaking a sweat.
But a few backbreaking runs by Todd Gurley, as well as multiple excellent plays by the two Coopers in 200-plus yard performances, showed that despite all its recent strides, Tennessee's defense still needs work.
Without those huge plays by Gurley and Amari Cooper, the Vols could have stolen a win in Athens and kept pace with Alabama well into the fourth quarter. Huge plays by Brandon Wilds and Pharoh Cooper nearly put the game out of reach against South Carolina until Joshua Dobbs engineered a miracle comeback.
While no team can forever stamp out big plays from happening against its defense, Tennessee still has a tendency to let one or two happen in tough SEC matchups. As this season proved, they're often game-changing plays.
The Vols have to keep plays in front of them more often in 2015 and prevent 10-yard gains from turning into 75-yard touchdowns.
Punt Return Yardage
Cam Sutton's 76-yard punt return against Vanderbilt is likely the play that sent Tennessee back to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
It was also one of the few times Sutton had the opportunity to make a play with the ball in his hands.
According to NCAA.com statistics, the Vols ranked No. 37 in the country for punt return yardage with an average of 9.68 yards per return. Take away Sutton's highlight-reel return and the Vols fall to No. 90 with 6.52 yards per return.
Obviously, long returns count in the overall rankings, but it goes to show that Tennessee struggled to move the ball on punt returns outside of that one play.
Overall, the Vols excelled on special teams in 2014, and that trend looks to continue in 2015. But an upgrade in the punt return game (and finding a possible replacement for the extremely valuable Sutton) might be enough to push the unit from great to elite.
The Vols put points on the board 92.6 percent of the time when they reached the red zone in 2014, which is good enough for No. 5 in the country, according to NCAA.com statistics.
That sounds impressive on the surface, but of their 54 trips to the red zone and 50 scoring plays inside the 20-yard line, only 33 put six points on the board.
The Florida game stands out as being one where, despite multiple turnovers that set the offense up nicely, Tennessee couldn't capitalize on excellent field position and had to settle for field goals.
Indeed, the Vols' nine-point lead seemed far too close for comfort heading into the fourth quarter, and just as many Tennessee fans feared, the Gators were able to rally and overcome that small deficit in the waning minutes of the game.
Tennessee's offense will be plenty capable of moving up and down the field in 2015 with great efficiency and regularity, and while sophomore kicker Aaron Medley is a reliable weapon, three-point opportunities won't cut it in the battle for the SEC East.
The Vols need to find ways to get the ball in the end zone next season, even if it means eschewing a guaranteed three points in favor of an another attempt at picking up a first down or a final push into paydirt.