We all know the numbers, and they are staggering. No. 1 Tennessee’s offense is in the top three nationally in most major categories heading into the game Saturday at No. 3 Georgia, from total offense to scoring to pass efficiency.
More than anything, the Vols are built on the long ball behind quarterback Hendon Hooker. Their 30 completions on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield are tied for the national lead, per TruMedia. They rank third nationally in yards per play (7.4) and second in yards per pass attempt (10.4). And they have registered 59 explosive passes of 15 yards or more, for an explosive play percentage of 19.1. About one in every five completions turns into a big play.
All of this explosivity — and 64 percent of the Vols’ entire offensive output this season — is based around one concept: the deep choice. It’s the bedrock of head coach Josh Heupel’s system, one that he carried with him from his days at UCF, although it’s not entirely Heupel’s intellectual property. This package is an offshoot of former Baylor coach Art Briles’ system.
Heupel has reformed it, and like many systems in college football, it has gone through a continual reformation process to get it to the peak it’s at entering the trip to Athens. But unlike the West Coast or run-and-shoot offense, Heupel’s offense is not complicated.
I talked to several defensive coordinators who have tried to impede this juggernaut and connected with a few lower-level disciples of the Heupel system, who have spent hours drawing up this scheme on cocktail napkins in backroom clinics, to give me insight into how this system is run and why it’s so explosive.
This is a receiver-driven system, one that differs significantly from the QB-driven West Coast and run-and-shoot-style offenses. Receivers in Knoxville are taught to be fast and decisive, attacking a defender’s leverage wherever it’s given. Less is placed on pre-snap coverage and more on the post-snap reaction of defenders.
Velus Jones Jr., now a receiver for the Chicago Bears, transferred to Tennessee from USC and caught 62 passes for 807 yards in 2021.
“The most challenging part for me was to stop thinking so much,” he said. “Coming from a West Coast system, you get used to looking at coverage and pre-snapping everything. Now it’s just about being fast and being decisive.”