Revisiting Tennessee’s Passing Game vs Pitt

A year ago, we left the Pitt game wondering if the Vols would continue to unleash their tight ends in Josh Heupel’s offense. It turned out to be a false positive: Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren combined for nine catches against the Panthers, but ended the season with just 34, giving them more than a quarter of their season total in one game.

Those numbers were more in line from what we’ve seen in the past, both from Tennessee and from Heupel at UCF:

  • Tennessee Pass Distribution 2010-20: 63% WR, 23% RB, 14% TE
  • UCF Pass Distribution 2018-20: 76% WR, 18% RB, 6% TE

The flip last season ended up being from running backs to tight ends:

  • Tennessee Pass Distribution 2021: 77% WR, 15% TE, 8% RB

Tennessee’s backs caught just 20 total passes last season, a jarring number considering Eric Gray caught 30 alone in nine games the year before. It’s one week in a 49-point win, but against Ball State 25 of UT’s 27 receptions went to wide receivers. The seven players to get multiple catches were all receivers.

So one big question: are we going to see the tight ends get involved against the Pitt defense again?

If so, it’ll probably come in a different fashion. Last year against the Panthers, 15 of Tennessee’s 22 receptions went to tight ends and running backs. The Vols used Princeton Fant early to get Joe Milton going. Then the Vols attacked deep downfield, as you’ll recall, to no avail. Then Hendon Hooker used both Fant and Jacob Warren in late drives to give the Vols a chance to win.

These are two curiosities for me with this high-octane offense: will the Vols utilize the tight ends and running backs more, and if not, will they stick with a larger rotation at wide receiver? We saw Walker Merrill, Ramel Keyton, and Squirrel White all get in with the ones against Ball State. How deep will that pool be against Pitt?

Last week at Pitt, West Virginia receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton had nine catches for 97 yards and two TDs, the brightest spot in a passing game that struggled to be explosive on a consistent basis (5.4 yards per attempt). He and WR Sam James were the only players to catch more than two passes. Last year Pitt’s defense was vulnerable to efficient quarterback play, with Western Michigan, Miami, and Virginia all having significant success against them.

All that to say: I assume Hendon Hooker will continue to be an efficient passer. Will we see guys running wide open downfield against Pitt again? If so, great! If not, how will Heupel and these guys draw it up – and will that once again include tight ends and backs that don’t usually get involved?

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