published Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Tennessee Vols offense in sync

Tennessee's Raijon Neal sprints with the ball during the first quarter of UT's game against Buffalo Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee's Raijon Neal sprints with the ball during the first quarter of UT's game against Buffalo Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Backed up at its own 8-yard line, Tennessee needed 14 yards on third down to keep a drive alive early in the second quarter of Saturday afternoon's 41-10 win against Buffalo.

It's a situation that might have called for a draw play to a running back in the past.

In the present, though, things on third downs are different for the Volunteers.

"Really it's just confidence [and] making those plays in practice" said receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who was on the receiving end of a 58-yard throw-and-catch from quarterback Tyler Bray on the play. "Making the same plays you make in practice is pretty easy."

The Vols (3-1) have converted 36 of 58 third downs this season, and that 62 percent clip is tied for the best in the country with 4th-ranked Wisconsin. Bray's abilities make that efficiency seem normal, but the Vols were 11-of-58 on third-down conversions through four games last season.

Even when Bray took over UT's offense from Matt Simms last November, the Vols were still converting at under 45 percent in his five starts as a freshman.

"A lot more confidence, I think," receiver Zach Rogers said. "Tyler is getting the ball out of his hand quick. I think we're in the right spots at the right time and catching the ball, so it's huge for us. It's a great improvement from last year.

"Obviously we struggled tremendously last year. Making this improvement is big for our offense."

UT hasn't faced a bunch of short-yardage situations, though 15 of the 36 conversions have come on run plays. The Vols are 14-of-30 on situations where they've needed five or yards for a first down, and UT is facing more than six yards for first downs on average.

Justin Hunter had six first-down catches, including the play at Florida that ended his season when he landed awkwardly and tore ligaments in his left knee. Da'Rick Rogers has six through four games, and 21 of the sophomore's 27 catches this season have either gone for a first down or a touchdown.

"T-Bray is having fun," said sophomore Rajion Neal, who has moved to receiver after beginning the season at tailback. "He's fearless. He's throwing it [and] having fun. The coaches are really just putting it all in his hands and letting him play."

Nine different players have caught first-down passes on third down this season. UT's eight passing conversions on Saturday went to six different players.

"Throwing and catching, that's what third down is," coach Derek Dooley said. "It starts with protection. You have to give him a chance to throw it. Then a good accurate throw, then a good precise route."

The opposing defenses have had a hand in UT's ease on third-down conversions. Montana is 90th in the Football Championship Subdivision, and Cincinnati and Buffalo rank 37th and 77th, respectively, in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The Vols converted just four of 12 third downs in a 10-point loss at Florida more than two weeks, though UT 10 situations where they needed seven yards or more. Even after allowing Alabama to make more than half of their 13 third-down attempts in a loss on Saturday, the Gators are sixth in the nation.

UT will face Georgia's second-rated third-down defense on Saturday.

"So far we have been pretty good and we are going to need to be," Dooley said. "These teams we play coming up are a lot better on third down defense than what we have seen."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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