More than occasionally during fall camp, Tennessee's offense emptied its backfield and lined up with five wideouts during practices and scrimmages.
Other times, the Vols' offense utilized innovative motion out of its backfield, always seeking to generate mismatches for offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's circle of five playmakers.
Through Tennessee's 1-2 start to its 2008 season it would be easier to spot Sasquatch than five Vols wide receivers on the field at any one time. Tennessee's playbook actually has shrunk since its season-opening, 27-24 overtime loss at UCLA.
And at 15th-ranked Auburn (3-1, 1-1 SEC) on Saturday, there's no more important matchup than Tennessee's untimely immobile offense versus the Tigers' seemingly impenetrable defense. Kickoff at Jordan-Hare Stadium is 3:30 p.m. (CBS).
"I've got to make sure that we're doing things the players fully understand," said Clawson, whose offense actually has outgained those of UT's first three opponents but struggled to finish drives. "We've probably cut back quite a bit from the UCLA game. I've got to make sure that I don't cut back too much and that we become too simple to defend. That's always a balance."
Opponents, meanwhile, are daring the Vols to strike a conventional balance as junior quarterback Jonathan Crompton struggles to manage the offense. In last week's 30-6 home loss to Florida -- which matched Tennessee's worst defeat at Neyland Stadium since a 41-14 shellacking by Georgia in 2003 -- the Gators dared the UT offense to pass. Tennessee was held to less than 100 net rushing yards and just 162 passing yards -- an average of 9 yards per completion and just 5.8 yards per attempt during Crompton's 18-for-28 performance.
"It's just the defenses that we're going up against," said versatile sophomore Gerald Jones of the Vols' lack of open sets. "A lot of teams like to blitz Crompton because they think he can't handle the pressure. We like to keep him safe. Keep more people in to protect him and just rely on two or three receivers and a tight end to get the job done."
Being forced into less-complicated, tighter sets takes away one of Tennessee's primary strengths this season. Wide receiver is widely considered the Vols' position of greatest depth and talent, but one-fourth of the way through the season only starters Lucas Taylor and Gerald Jones boast multi-catch games. Taylor, fellow senior Josh Briscoe and junior Austin Rogers combined last season for 185 receptions. While Taylor leads the team with 14 catches, Briscoe and Rogers have gathered just four passes total.
"It's difficult, especially with the way we played last year," Briscoe said of the Vols' struggles in the passing game. "Last year, we felt our receiving corps was very strong. Our running game came along as the season went and this year our running game has gone well and our passing game has not.
"We have to execute the gameplan that coach Clawson feels is best for that week. If that's two tight ends and two receivers or if that is four wides, we have to go out and execute. As a receiver, I want to see as many receivers on the field as we can and we feel like if you put four receivers or three receivers on the field then we are going to move the ball and make the plays we have to make. When we are going with two receiver sets, we still have to make the plays but we have to be patient and rotate it because we know our time is going to come."
While first-year wide receivers coach Latrell Scott has been lauded for both his guidance and instructional skills at the position, the former assistant to Clawson at Richmond has faced an increasingly difficult task in managing the receivers' rotation in the trimmed-down offense.
"Sometimes when you're in those two receiver sets, they're a lot easier to manage for the quarterback. Jonathan doesn't have to make as many decisions as he would in protections and checks and things like that as he would if we were in open sets," said Scott, also among the current staff's most dynamic recruiters. "Our main focus is to get our five best skill people on the field at one time, and that's what we're trying to do."
The multiple, spread-out sets also place a great premium on receivers' abilities to read defenses and be on the same page with the quarterback.
"Even the wide receivers got to know the hot reads," Jones said. "Sometimes all the wide receiver knows is to run the route and block the safety or the corner. It's a little harder on the receivers to point out the Sam blitz and the different types of blitzing combinations to make that hot throw and just convert it. Sometimes you'll be off-page and it can become an interception or anything."
While the receivers primarily tasked with getting in sync with Crompton has consisted of Jones, Taylor, tight ends Luke Stocker and [/db]Brandon Warren[/db], as well as a tailback, Scott reiterated that he has plenty of guys capable of getting the job done.
"We've got total confidence in our entire group. You see us in a lot more two receiver sets than you did last year and that rests those guys as much because you have the ability to play Josh Briscoe for some snaps, to play Denarius Moore for some snaps, and you have the ability to play Austin Rogers," he said.
Further, Jones has lined up some at quarterback in the "G-Gun" package, but he has yet to throw a pass. While Clawson demurred when pressed on his plans to allow Jones to throw from that set, Jones acknowledged such a play-call is a must if the system is to succeed.
"Honestly, I don't think it can work if we don't throw at least one or two passes out of it," said Jones, who cited both the Vols' spring game and his track record in high school as evidence he can be a capable passer. "And we've got plays where I pass the ball. We've just got to have confidence in me passing it. And it's going to have to work because I'm going to have to pass the ball to keep them honest. Otherwise they're going to stack eight men in the box, nine men in the box and just bring it."
The challenge Auburn presents defensively -- particularly with its ability to both rush the quarterback and defend the pass -- could be Tennessee's most daunting yet, according to players and coaches.
"Their defense from the film we have seen is better than Florida's. They play a lot more physical than Florida did. Florida is a team that is going to try dip and rip around a block to make a tackle where Auburn is going to try and run through you to make the tackle. That is the biggest difference between the two. Both have a lot of speed, but Auburn is a lot more physical than Florida."
Added Scott, "They can run. Auburn's probably, as a group, the most athletic secondary we've played all year."
But coaches and players have seen enough, Scott said, to believe the Vols' offense is close to producing results that can be seen on the scoreboard and not just the stat sheet.
"We're not going to flinch. We know what we do works, and these kids have total confidence in this offense and this offensive staff and the defensive kids have confidence in what they do for coach (John) Chavis," Scott said. "We know what we are, and I think we're close. It will show real soon."
It has to if the Vols are going to gain the confidence to show a little bit more of their offensive playbook.
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