by: Josh Jessee
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
With the Tennessee Football regular season more than halfway over, there is a lot to be impressed with by the 2023 offense, but at the same time, there is a lot left to be desired. While the Tennessee rushing attack and the three headed monster of Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small, and Dylan Sampson are lighting up defenses across the
conference, gone are the days of Hendon Hooker taking the top off of defenses and finding Jaylen Hyatt streaking down the field for six. Tennessee has found new ways to win, and Josh Heupel deserves all the credit in the world.
What happened to the passing game, and does it have an opportunity to "right the ship" down the homestretch of the season? This past weekend at Kentucky and a tune-up game against UConn could set the passing game on a much needed trajectory heading into a tough stretch of games.
Before the season started, the Joe Milton hype was in full swing, and rightfully so. The dude is a physical specimen. Looking at him, one can't help but get "Cam Newton" Vibes. Milton stands at 6'5, 235 pounds with a cannon of an arm which claims to have the ability to sling a football 90 yards. That paired with the impressive performance Milton put on display in the Orange bowl drove hype through the roof. However, once the season took off, Milton struggled with consistency in games having to rely on the run game for explosive plays on offense.
So far this season Joe Milton has shown flashes of brilliance, but lacked the consistency needed to compete at a high level. Receivers struggled with dropped passes, and the offensive line faced issues protecting the quarterback; especially in the absence of Center Cooper Mays, resulting in sacks and hurried throws. The offense managed to move the ball, but often struggled to finish drives effectively, having to settle for field goals. Tennessee also lost the production one of
its best wide receivers in Bru McCoy due to a season-ending injury earlier this year against South Carolina. This has led to the Vols turning to several underclassmen getting a lot of valuable playing time this season.
Tennessee Offensive Coordinator Joey Halzle mentioned this week that Tennessee’s offense has leaned on the run game a lot this season because of the talent that they have in the backfield. After hearing this comment brings clarity to why Tennessee has looked so one dimensional at times this season and not pushed the ball down the field as often as they did last year. Halzle also mentioned the youth of the receiving core that Tennessee has this season. This brings some clarity as to why Tennessee has had trouble winning on the edge and getting open for over the top plays. One thing that could be added to that is the injuries Tennessee has faced on offense. As mentioned above the Vols lost Bru for the season against South Carolina and Oregon Transfer Dont’e Thornton really hadn't looked healthy until the Kentucky game. There is also speculation that Joe has been dealing with injuries throughout the first half of the season such as a knee injury suffered against UTSA, and an unconfirmed rib injury against Virginia. Though the rib injury isn't confirmed yet a banged up Milton would help explain some of the inconsistency in the passing game earlier on.
Every Tennessee fan knew going into the season that Joe Milton had a cannon of an arm, and that he from time to time would sail or misplace passes. One thing I'm sure of is that fans were not prepared for an array of dropped passes. Especially sure touchdowns that were in and out of the hands of veteran receivers. Things that have slowly begun to improve as the season
progressed. Coaching and player development will be crucial in enhancing the Tennessee Volunteers' passing game for the remainder of the season, a thing that fans should trust Heupel to do as he has yet to give them a reason to doubt yet. The responsibility will also fall on the players to maintain consistency throughout the season. Developing chemistry between the quarterback and the receiving corps is essential for further improvement especially with new faces getting playing time filling in for Bru’s absence.
One unnoticed stat this season though that has gone unnoticed due to the focus on the running game, is that the two games following the bye week have seen a major improvement in the passing game. Milton has a combined stat against Alabama and Kentucky of 45/61 for 498 yards 3 TD’s and no Interceptions. A noticeable difference from some of the previous outing Vol
fans have seen this season. A trend that most Vols fans hope continues for the remainder of the season. This weekend is the perfect opportunity to build on that momentum as the Vols take on the UConn Huskies in a noon Homecoming Kickoff. Tennessee is currently favored by 35 points over the Huskies and should give Heupel and Company a real opportunity to test out the passing offense. With Milton's quiet but very noticeable improvement over the past two games, and a healthier wide receiving unit the Vols should definitely be airing out the ball earlier and often Saturday. The game for Milton should be an opportunity to improve on his accuracy and progression reading. This game will also allow for some of the young talented receivers like Chas Nimrod and Caleb Webb to build chemistry with Joe, as well as become more comfortable
in their route running. This also will allow for Heupel to experiment with Thornton and find exactly where he will damage defense the most. Uconn ranks 84 in passing yards allowed per game, allowing 254 yards per game.
Look for Heupel and company to exploit the match up this weekend and build confidence in a healthy pass attack. Heupel will look to build off the moment off the last two games and create a trend rather than an anomaly. This game is important in righting the ship as Tennessee will need its pass attack against both Missouri and Georgia. Tennessee will run on anyone they face but will require the run game to open up the passing game in order to beat teams like Georgia and Missouri. The best way for them to do that starts this weekend by righting the ship, building on momentum, and evaluating what they have in the pass attack against an opponent that shouldn't put up too much of a fight. Look for the Vols to have a big day in the pass game Saturday against UConn and for the pass attack to become a larger threat as the season wraps up.