Tennessee football: Vols fans welcome the return to a pro-style offense

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 29: A general view of Neyland Stadium during the South Carolina Gamecocks game against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 29, 2011 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 29: A general view of Neyland Stadium during the South Carolina Gamecocks game against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 29, 2011 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Tennessee football is going back to the pro-style offense with new head coach Jeremy Pruitt bringing in Tyson Helton. Volunteers fans welcome that.

Be honest. Even when you had faith in Butch Jones back in 2013 and 2014, something seemed awfully wrong with Tennessee football running the spread offense. It went against everything Vols fans prided themselves on thanks to a culture that had been built decades before.

Perhaps Jones’s spread was made even worse with the way he attempted to force players into it. And the most annoying part was he insisted it was a pro-style, just more based in the shotgun. But we could all see that wasn’t the case.

It’s well-documented now that Jones had a finesse offense focused on trickery and misdirection than just being better. The best example is last year’s game against the Florida Gators. No pro-style offense has players get in shotgun when they are on the one-foot line and about to score a touchdown. That goes against everything UT stands for.

With Tyson Helton now taking over as offensive coordinator, the Vols can go back to a pro-style. Now, to be fair, this is an offense more based on schemes than, say, what David Cutcliffe did. Helton looks for mismatches and will spread the ball around. But it is indeed a pro-style. And he has been clear that he wants a power running game.

Combine that with Jeremy Pruitt leading the program, and it’s no secret that Tennessee football wants to go back to just being a pure, balanced attack on offense that can get physical with anybody. This is the nature of the Vols, and it has been for over 40 years.

When Johnny Majors installed his vertical passing attack in Knoxville back in 1977, turning UT into Wide Receiver U, the Vols became a pro-style team. They churned out NFL talent on a regular basis, only the way a pro-style team would, and they used that talent to be able to recruit nationally. Even when they had mediocre talent, the filled up the NFL.

The laying of those seeds allowed Phillip Fulmer to take it to new heights during the 1990s, and that culminated ultimately with the 1998 national championship. The pro-style offense is just a part of the Vols culture. Jones’s spread took that away.

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Tennessee football took such pride in running the pro-style that many fans didn’t sulk in losing to teams like the Nebraska Cornhuskers or Kansas State Wildcats. They would explain it away by saying those teams don’t run legitimate offenses by using the triple-option. The pride went that deep on Rocky Top.

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But to be fair, trickery offenses are part of the culture of those teams, and they know their identity. Systems that spread out the field and use track stars as receivers are a staple for the Florida Gators. A suffocating defense with a power running game and game managers at quarterback on offense is the staple of the LSU Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide. On Rocky Top, it’s still a great defense. But that complements a balanced offense.

The Vols don’t have the luxury of picking raw talent the way Alabama or LSU do. Don’t get me wrong, they can get talent. But they can’t be as selective. As a result, they have to be able to have a balanced attack on both sides of the ball and adapt to their personnel on a yearly basis.

Part of that also involves bringing in an elite quarterback, and we know the pro-style attracts such players over any other system. Throughout the 1990s, Tennessee football almost always had a top three quarterback in the SEC. And they were able to adapt to each quarterback’s skills set. Such talent there allowed them to dominate some teams who may have had more athletes but did not have the quarterback play. Their dominance over the Georgia Bulldogs comes to mind.

Take the last two SEC Championship teams. In 1997, the Vols had Peyton Manning at quarterback and weapons all over the field. They had an offense that was out there to score every play. But in 1998, they had to play it closer to the vest with Tee Martin. It was still a pro-style, but it used the different type of weapons Martin brought to the table and relied more on the defense.

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You can only adapt to personnel like that if you run a pro-style. Butch Jones’s spread offense came apart when he didn’t have Joshua Dobbs to run it. That’s why he went 4-8 in his FIFTH season. If you properly install the pro-style, the program never comes undone. And that’s why Tyson Helton is taking Tennessee football back to where it needs to be.