Home Technology Tennessee Vols have a line on Georgia Tech triple option, but it’s...

Tennessee Vols have a line on Georgia Tech triple option, but it’s costly

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Clips from Vols practice August 18, 2017
Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel

KNOXVILLE — If you’re going to play Georgia Tech, play the Yellow Jackets first. But don’t play Georgia Tech.

That would be one of my rules as a college athletics director, though as a college football fan I would watch Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets every week if I could. The “flexbone” triple-option offense is a fascinating example of the creativity that makes college football more fun than the pro game, and just a handful of FBS programs are committed to running it.

Tennessee is committed to stopping it, and that’s a big commitment. Yes, Johnson is picking a new quarterback and just dismissed the running back — sophomore Dedrick Mills — who was supposed to lead the team in rushing this season. The Vols might swarm and stuff the Yellow Jackets in the Sept. 4 opener at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, leading to victory in a major swing game that will dictate the early tone of Butch Jones’ fifth season.

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But they might not because this is a really hard offense to stop, and Johnson has plenty of players who can run it (Jones noted Friday that Georgia Tech was 3-0 without Mills last season). And even if they do, the question of whether this game was worth it will be asked 12 days later if the Vols don’t win at Florida. By necessity, Georgia Tech has taken up a chunk of the preseason time that would have been spent on global defensive construction.

“Yeah, absolutely,” UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said Friday of flexbone prep time taking away from other things. “But it is what it is.”

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It’s a game you don’t play if you don’t have to play it. By the time camp ends and the Vols get to the start of their first game week on Aug. 28, Shoop said four days will have been spent solely on Georgia Tech. He’s sprinkling in looks from other teams on the schedule as well, as he always does, but the flexbone demands devotion.

It is misdirection and cut blocks and deception and cut blocks and the occasional play-action bomb, followed by a few more cut blocks.

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UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop pleased with preseason so far
Dan Fleeser / Knoxville News Sentinel

“The cut block is a big element, and we’ve worked a lot on that,” said Shoop, who can’t relish the idea of blockers diving at his guys’ knees all night, after losing so many of his key guys to injury in 2016.

“It’s so complex and they run it to almost perfection,” said Vols safety Todd Kelly Jr., who has never tried to defend this offense in college or high school. “Their coach has been running it for a lot of years now. The thing about the triple option is, they know more about what they’re doing than we know about how to defend it because it really is one of a kind.”

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And I’m still searching for the defensive coach or player who enjoys facing it. ACC schools have no choice, of course, and some of them have stopped it. But it still requires much more time to prepare, and the ACC schedule this season indicates league awareness of that fact — three of Georgia Tech’s league opponents are off the weekend before playing the Yellow Jackets.

At left Tennessee offensive lineman Riley Locklear (56) and Tennessee defensive lineman Kivon Bennett (95) participate in a drill during a University of Tennessee fall football practice at Anderson Training Facility in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. (Photo: CAITIE MCMEKIN/NEWS SENTINEL)

That prompted Johnson to tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January that the ACC “tries to screw us every way they can,” and those howls prompted the ACC to change its policy. Starting in 2018, ACC teams will have a maximum of one league game against a team that was off the previous week.

At least the Vols get several weeks. This would be a bigger problem in the middle of the schedule — just ask Vanderbilt, which defended SEC offenses solidly in 2016 but got destroyed 38-7 by the Yellow Jackets in the third week.

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And before throwing another log on the Blame Dave Hart For Everything fire, remember that there are reasons to agree to this game as he did in 2015. It’s prime-time, exclusive exposure and it’s being played in an important recruiting area.

Though current AD John Currie said he prefers home-and-home series against Power 5 opponents, neutral-site games can have value. This one is an opportunity. And the Vols have some built-in advantages, with Shoop’s experience defending the flexbone while at Boston College and William & Mary, and new defensive back coach Charlton Warren’s recent history at North Carolina.

At left Tennessee defensive lineman Kivon Bennett (95) and Tennessee offensive lineman Jashon Robertson (75) participate in a drill during a University of Tennessee fall football practice at Anderson Training Facility in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. (Photo: CAITIE MCMEKIN/NEWS SENTINEL)

Unfortunately for the Vols, a Monday night opener means a short week before Indiana State, which shouldn’t affect that outcome but means the normal in-season routine doesn’t start until Florida week. That won’t be a valid excuse, but it’s not ideal.

And we won’t really know much about the Vols defense until Florida. They might silence Georgia Tech and end up awful against everyone else; they might be trampled by Georgia Tech and end up dominant.

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“It’s hard. That will be hard,” Shoop said of drawing big-picture conclusions from the opener. “But you know, confidence with kids this age is a big thing.”

And winning is the biggest thing, especially when you have to invest this much in it.

Contact Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@tennessean.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.

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