Vol-Gator sub-plot

Marquez North

InsideTennessee digs deeper to give you the finest coverage of Vol football. Read how an overlooked aspect of Saturday's UT-Florida game could provde decisive.

Tennessee's offense wants to play a fast pace Saturday in Gainesville, even though the Florida Gators' superior depth and oppressive mid-day heat could pose problems.

Ultimately, the Vols' chances of winning may hinge on how well they manage to keep fresh bodies on the field to run their uptempo attack. Substituting wisely could be critical. That's especially true for receivers coach Zach Azzanni, whose troops run miles of pass patterns during an average game.

"We're looking for a lot of guys," Azzanni said recently. "Everyone asks, ‘Why do you have so many receivers?' Well, you can see why: We run a lot, so you need more than four receivers out there."

With several wideouts who missed Game 3 at Oregon due back for Game 4 at Florida, Azzanni has roughly a dozen wideouts at his disposal this weekend. That's counting some freshmen and walk-ons who have not yet proven dependable, however.

"The pace affects how I rotate," Azzanni conceded. "But, at the same time, I've got to have guys who know what they're doing."

Given the quick pace Tennessee plays, the receivers coach says he needs to play more wideouts per game than a team operating at a more deliberate tempo.

"Oh, man," he said. "I'd like to use eight or nine."

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Tight ends coach Mark Elder agrees that Tennessee's uptempo attack has a definite impact on how and when the Vols send in a backup.

"The fast pace does affect substitutions," he said. "There are certain times we will not sub people if we're trying to go at a certain speed. It's a lot easier to do it in a scripted practice because you can look at the script and decide what your substitution pattern is going to be. It's a little more difficult in a (game) situation."

Tight ends don't run as much as wide receivers but they still need plenty of wind to play four quarters of football at a high level.

"Stamina is absolutely critical to be able to play in this offense," Elder said. "You have to be able to give your maximum effort every single play. We're trying to get as many snaps as we can in a game, so you have to have great stamina in order to be able to do that."

Obviously, a guy lacking superior stamina will have to subbed in and out a lot.

"Or he's probably going to be sitting on the bench," Elder said. "We're not going to have someone in there, then yank him out every other play. That's not how we do things. If you don't have the stamina to play at a high level for 60 minutes then you're not what we're looking for."

Elder, who also coached tight ends for Butch Jones in 2010 at Cincinnati, says he likes to rotate three of them during the course of a game.

"Obviously, you vary the number of reps," he said. "If you have a dominant guy (like Travis Kelce at Cincinnati) he's going to play 50 or 60 reps out of 80, with the other guys playing 15 and 5 or maybe 20 and 10. If it's a more evenly distributed group, it could be 30-30-20 or something along those lines."

Because offensive linemen rely so heavily on teamwork, teams are reluctant to make wholesale changes in the blocking front during a game. Still, there are times when resting a starter or two is vital, and Saturday in Gainesville may be one of those times.

"If it's an early-season game in which heat is a factor, you may have to have some guys ready to step in at a given series, whenever that may be," Vol offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "But there's never been a situation in which I've really had to rotate guys."

Mahoney says he likes to play seven linemen in a typical game, explaining: "You usually like to have a swing guy inside (to fill in at center and both guard spots) and a swing guy outside that can handle the edge (tackle spots)."

Freshman Josh Smith is one of several receivers that will take the field for the Volunteers in the Gainesville heat and humidity.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Tennessee's offensive linemen did a lot of running during the offseason in order to improve their stamina. That's good because Mahoney is not yet happy with the Vols' O-line depth.

"It's not where it needs to be," he said. "We're still not there. I'm pleased with (backup center) Mack Crowder and I'm pleased with (second-team guard) Marcus Jackson but the other guys need to step it up. I'm going to continue to put pressure on them from that standpoint. It's still early but the clock's ticking."

A fast-paced offense can place a lot of pressure on running backs. That isn't a problem at Tennessee, however. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane split the snaps roughly 50-50 and both are in superior condition.

"These guys have to be in great shape for what we do," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "That's in (conditioning coach) Dave Lawson's hands. He's done a great job."

Basically, Tennessee changes running backs based on situation more so than fatigue.

"Obviously, we'll rotate on specialty plays – things some guys do a little better than others," Gillespie said. "The guy who's hot will get the bulk of the carries but it's always great to have multiple guys you can substitute and keep a fresh guy in the game. That's what the great running back groups in this league have … great depth."

Although Tennessee's fast pace on offense has more impact on its attack unit, speeding up play also affects Vol defenders by forcing them to play more snaps. With a fast pace and a humid afternoon waiting in Gainesville, Tennessee's linebacker coach expects to substitute early and often.

"You've got to," Tommy Thigpen said. "They (Gators) rotate a lot of guys at running back and they keep the pressure on. They've got a stable of running backs like I've never seen. They're bringing three or four running backs and they're constantly running downhill. They try to wear you down as much as anybody I've seen."

Whether the Gators succeed in that endeavor or not may hinge on how well Tennessee substitutes Saturday at The Swamp.

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