UT offense wants to pass with attitude
By Grant Ramey | (email@example.com)
Tennessee’s offense is a year older, a year more experienced and a year more matured.
Despite what should be a pass-first and pass-often offense, Tennessee has focused on physicality under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney with an offense that’s a year older and a year better.
“We’ve been pressing the physicality of our conference and trying to become a more physical football team, and I think they’ve been in on that,” Chaney said. “We have some vertical speed to be able to throw the ball.
“We’re comfortable with where we are right now.”
Graham’s running backs, led by Rajion Neal, have brought that physicality so far.
The depth chart is full of names with no particular one on top, but Neal has to be the early favorite for the starting spot.
Neal (134 yards rushing on 27 carries in 2011) and sophomore Marlin Lane (75 carries for 280 yards and two touchdowns last season) are the most game-tested returners. The pair has split first-team reps early in training camp.
“They’re trying to be physical, they’re trying to finish runs,” Graham said. “They’re trying to pass protect and do things the right way. That’s the biggest thing I’ve been impressed with.”
Both Neal and Lane represent pass-catching options out of the backfield. Neal caught 13 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore last season while Lane had 161 yards receiving and a pair of scores on 17 receptions during his freshman campaign. Lane has been Tennessee’s No. 1 option at the Wildcat position in fall workouts.
Former Bearden High School standout Devrin Young should be the third option, with freshmen Quenshaun Watson in the mix behind the top three. Both Young and Watson are also kick and punt returning options for UT’s special teams units.
The mantra of the offensive line through camp has been that they’re bigger, better, a year older and, stressed as most importantly, a year closer.
Chemistry has been an oft-talked about topic for the starting five, which so far in camp has been Antonio “Tiny” Richardson (left tackle), Dallas Thomas (left guard), James Stone (center), Zach Fulton (right guard) and Ju’Wuan James (right tackle).
“We’ve been playing pretty well,” offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. “We’re playing fast. We’re through the install now so we can work harder on playing a little faster.”
Stone is back at center after snapping struggles haunted him last season. Should those troubles arise this season, Alex Bullard will be the one to shuffle back to center. Bullard has worked at center, guard and tackle, serving as a utility lineman on Tennessee’s second-team line.
“James is doing a great job,” Pittman said of Stone, who snaps left-handed in shot gun formations and right-handed under center. “He’s snapping with the hand that he can get it to the quarter back in shotgun and snapping with the one he can get it to the quarterback under center.”
Tyler Bray is back and healthy. After missing five games last season after breaking the thumb on his throwing hand during the loss to Georgia, Bray, one of the SEC’s most talented throwers, returns to one of the SEC’s most talented receiving corps.
In seven games in 2011 Bray completed 147-of-247 pass attempts for 1,983 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Bray will have a full complement of talented receivers to throw to with a now-healthy Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson.
With more weapons, more experience and more on-field maturity, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney says Bray has more advanced options in his offensive scheme.
“I think their brains are better,” Chaney said of his offense. “They understand better. With that it’s more playbooks, more schemes are available to you.”
Behind Bray returns Justin Worley, who woefully filled in at quarterback during Bray’s absence. Worley has had a good fall camp but won’t be a factor in 2012 if Bray stays healthy. Third on the depth chart is freshman Nathan Peterman.
The wide receiver group is without a doubt Tennessee’s most talented roster spot.
Tennessee’s pass-happy attack should be led by Hunter, who’s back to 100 percent after coming back from the ACL tear that cut his season short in 2011.
“I’m real pleased with Justin,” Chaney said. “He’s had a wonderful summer. I think the confidence is there on his leg ... I’ve seen some catches that remind me of Justin, so that’s fun.”
Rogers, who went over 1,000 yards receiving last year and caught nine touchdown passes as the Vols’ most talented target, is back with the most experience. Patterson, the athletic and talented junior college transfer, hasn’t had a bad word said about him early in training camp.
“He’s that big athletic kid that we thought,” Chaney said of Patterson. “There’s been nothing he’s done to disappoint (us). We’re comfortable. We knew him pretty well, and he’s about where we though he’d be — big, fast kid that can play.”
Zach Rogers, walk-on Jacob Carter and former Knoxville Central standout Cody Blanc could see time in the slot when the Vols line up with four wide receivers.
Junior Mychael Rivera should get plenty of targets from Bray as defenses find a way to cover Tennessee’s talented wide receivers. Sophomore Brendan Downs is the No. 2 behind Rivera.
After Rivera and Downs, though, the depth chart is thin after former Tennessee tight end Cameron Clear was dismissed from the team during the offseason.
“I don’t feel good at the depth,” Dooley said. “I feel good about Mike and Brendan, where they are. But ... it’s a concern.”
Freshman athlete Justin King and former walk-on Joe Ayres were moved from defense to offense during training camp to give the Vols more options at tight end.