Tennessee football: Can new staff improve the Vols on short-yardage plays?

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 15: A view of the inside of Neyland Stadium during a game between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers on September 15, 2012 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 15: A view of the inside of Neyland Stadium during a game between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers on September 15, 2012 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images) /

Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton should focus on the Volunteers converting goal line plays.

The first glimpse of Butch Jones Tennessee football fans ever got was in 2011, when he brought his Cincinnati Bearcats to Neyland Stadium. In that game, the Vols won a blowout under Derek Dooley. But a play that stood out was how bad Cincy was on short-yardage plays.

Under Jones, the Bearcats failed to convert two 4th-and-1 plays. They also got a holding penalty on a 3rd-and-1 play that killed a drive. Then, in the third quarter, they got a 1st and goal from the UT one-yard line and couldn’t get it in the end zone. He failed to convert on three plays from the one. All in all, that was six plays in which he needed only one yard and failed on all of them. And, to nobody’s surprise, he lined up in shotgun all six of those plays.

Vols fans should have known what they were getting then when they hired Jones in 2012. But they didn’t. And what followed was a succession of close losses that often came down to utter failures in short-yardage situations.

The first major red flag, though, didn’t stand out until 2015. The Vols got an early interception against the Oklahoma Sooners and drove to the one-yard line. Jones had a power back in Jalen Hurt and a good-sized offensive line. Just line up and run it in! Well, instead, he opted for a shotgun draw to Alvin Kamara. It didn’t work, and he settled for a field goal.

That was the difference in the game, as the Vols lost in overtime. Over time, these issues on short-yardage plays continued to grow. And they reached boiling point for Tennessee football in the 2017 season.

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Everybody remembers the Hail Mary in the loss to the Florida Gators that year. But the key series came early in the third. Down 6-3, the Vols got the ball to the Florida one-foot line with a first and goal. What followed was an embarrassing succession of events.

Under Jones and his new offensive coordinator Larry Scott, the Vols called a pass play, picked up a false start, and then called three more pass plays, the last of which was intercepted. But it only got worse from there.

On the next drive, the Vols had a 3rd-and-1 in field goal range. Scott and Jones called a play-action that resulted in a holding penalty despite John Kelly being the best player on the field. Those plays were the difference in the game.

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A month later, the Vols lost to the South Carolina Gamecocks due to short-yardage issues. Twice they got inside the South Carolina three-yard line. They couldn’t score a touchdown either time and lost 15-9.

Against the Kentucky Wildcats, they had to settle for a field goal after reaching the one-yard line of the Wildcats on second down in the first quarter. This just became a recurring issue, and it was a huge factor in costing Jones his job.

Now, with the arrival of Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee football is returning to a pro-style offense. Tyson Helton is offensive coordinator, and Will Friend is offensive line coach. The focus for this Vols staff has to be returning to a team that converts short-yardage plays.

With Phillip Fulmer as athletic director now, that’s likely a requirement. The former offensive lineman made sure to convert on such plays when he was head coach. The same needs to happen now with this staff.

To be fair, the coaches know it. That’s why they’re trying to get bigger. They also pushed the running backs to gain weight and went after more power backs in the offseason, including four-star freshman Jeremy Banks and graduate transfer Madre London.

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Simply put, this coaching staff seems smart enough to know that you don’t have to trick people on short-yardage plays. Just line up and convert! If they can fix that issue, it will be a major breath of fresh air for Tennessee football.