Tennessee hopes more big plays on the way in passing game

Tennessee receiver Josh Malone celebrates with teammates after catching a 75-yard touchdown pass at Kentucky on Oct. 31, 2015. (Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics)

KNOXVILLE - It's been the play that has eluded Tennessee's offense.

It finally came at an opportune time last week in Lexington, Ky.

The Volunteers were trailing Kentucky 14-10 in the second quarter when Josh Dobbs threw perhaps the best deep ball of his Tennessee career and Josh Malone hauled it in and shook his defender to complete a 75-yard scoring play.

photo Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs passes while airborne during their SEC football game against Georgia at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 38-31.
photo Josh Malone is the Tennessee Volunteers' top wide receiver this season, with the sophomore totaling 19 catches for 212 yards in seven games. The team's wideouts, whose depth has been hurt by injuries for the second straight season, have made progress their past two games after making little statistical impact early in the schedule.

The career-long completion and reception for both players was Tennessee's longest pass play since the 2011 opener against Montana, when Justin Hunter took a slant pattern from Tyler Bray 81 yards for a touchdown.

"We tried it earlier, and we didn't complete it, but we backed them up," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "That was one purpose - was to throw it early in the game to try to get them backed up a little bit.

"It was very good protection up front by the O-line and an outstanding (blitz) pickup by (running back) Jalen Hurd. I mean outstanding, for him to have to come off of a fake and go around and get the guy on the move. The throw that Josh Dobbs made by stepping up in the pocket and letting that ball go at that distance and that accuracy was, in my opinion, a great play.

"We needed that play right then, because they had just scored, so we needed the momentum, we needed the points and it was a big play."

It's the kind of take-the-top-off-the-defense play Tennessee had not made all season.

The only other pass play of 50 or more yards came on a trick play at Florida, when receiver Jauan Jennings took a lateral from Dobbs and threw it back to the quarterback, who took it 58 yards for a score.

Tennessee's longest pass play from a quarterback before last week was a 49-yard toss from freshman backup Quinten Dormady to fellow freshman Preston Williams in the second half against Western Carolina, and Dobbs' longest completion was a 45-yard throw down the seam to Von Pearson in the opener against Bowling Green.

The junior has many strengths, but his accuracy on throws down the field is hit or miss. That's been the case all season. Dobbs will make an excellent throw on one play, then miss an easy would-be completion or miss his target.

It's who he is at this point, and the Vols are more than willing to live with that given what he provides with his mobility and speed when he runs, scrambles and improvises.

Among quarterbacks, Dobbs leads the SEC and ranks 15th nationally with 438 rushing yards, and only six SEC players have more rushing touchdowns than his seven.

"We're happy he's on our team," DeBord said. "He'll get us out of trouble. I think Josh Dobbs is doing nothing but getting better every single game. I see it in his footwork. I see it in his throws. I see it in his decision-making."

Tennessee's struggles in the deep passing game go beyond Dobbs, of course.

DeBord has called "shot plays" at various times this season with no success, either because the protection didn't hold up long enough or the receiver couldn't make a play.

As the bomb to Malone proved, so many things have to be executed to perfection for those plays to work.

The protection formed what DeBord called a "funnel" that allowed Dobbs to step into the throw, but the play would have failed if not for Hurd, who somehow darted through traffic to impede a blitzing Kentucky defender.

"We had a weakside pressure, and Jalen had the 'backer on the second level, so he had to come across," Dobbs said. "We had a play-action fake, but he still had to come across and pick up that 'backer. I was kind of in the middle of trying to fake, and he was trying to run over me to get to the guy.

"We were able to pick it up and make a play, so it all worked out in the end."

With the throw and protection on point, it was up to Malone to finish the play.

The sophomore had a rough finish to his freshman season in 2014, but he's leading the Vols in receptions and receiving yards and has developed into a focal point in the passing game.

"Everyone freaks out when guys are young," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "You've got to be able to coach them. They've got to be able to develop. They're not a finished product the day they walk in the door. They're going to have bumps and bruises along the way, and they're going to struggle. They've got to keep developing.

"He's a completely different player now than he was a year ago at this time. It's fun to watch. That's a tribute to his work ethic. He came out there today and he practiced as hard as I've seen him practice. I'm proud of him, and you can see the fruits of his labor and see the smile on his face when he's jogging over, because he wanted that play so bad."

Now it's on the Vols to produce more of them.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.