Tennessee among worst third-down offenses

Former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors had an old-school

suggestion for current coach Derek Dooley on how to minimize the

Volunteers’ problems converting third downs: Go to the quick

kick.

”He’s right, so we may work on that this week on third down,”

Dooley said.

He may be kidding about punting before fourth down, but the

Vols’ struggles on third down are no joke. Through four games,

they’ve converted only 11 of 58 third-down attempts for a paltry 19

percent success rate, ranking them 119th out of 120 FBS teams on

third-down conversions.

The majority of those third downs have been long-yardage

situations thanks to penalties, dropped balls or tailbacks tackled

for losses.

”Generally when you’re where we are on third down it is

everything (going wrong),” Dooley said. ”We’ve just got to play

out of it.”

Tennessee on Saturday has a difficult task as it faces No. 12

LSU (4-0, 2-0), which has the top defense in the SEC and ninth in

the nation. The Tigers’ opponents are averaging just 254 yards,

179.2 yards by air and 74.8 on the ground.

But the Vols (2-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) could also get

their top receiver back for Saturday’s trip to Baton Rouge. Gerald

Jones was out against Oregon, Florida and UAB after needing surgery

to repair a broken bone in his left hand.

Jones has been a go-to receiver on third down as he led all

Tennessee receivers in yards for the past two seasons. His

experience has helped make him fearless in clutch situations, said

Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms.

”The best thing about Gerald Jones is that he’s an extremely

tough receiver,” he said. ”You can’t say that about many

receivers nowadays. They want to make that big catch on the

outside, but Gerald’s one of the few receivers that will go through

the middle of the field and take a hit against a linebacker and get

those tough yards.”

The Vols also need starting tailback Tauren Poole to be

completely healthy against LSU’s damaging blitzes to help set up

short third down situations or avoid third downs altogether.

Poole hasn’t been 100 percent in two weeks and left after a

quarter against UAB after injuring his right thigh.

Though Poole led the SEC after two games, Tennessee’s rushing

game has dropped off since then and is now averaging only 146.2

yards per game as one of the worst in the league.

Despite winning against UAB in overtime on Sept. 25, the Vols

displayed their third-down woes, converting just two of 15

attempts. Both conversions came in the fourth quarter – one on a

1-yard rush by David Oku on third-and-1 at the Vols 28 and the

other on a 17-yard pass from Simms to Luke Stocker on third-and-6

at the Tennessee 41.

Simms was sacked twice on third down attempts, including the

final play of regulation. Seven third-down pass attempts fell

incomplete and five more were completed but were short of the

first-down marker.

To make matters worse, dropped balls forced the Vols to go

three-and-out during two third-quarter series that started in UAB

territory. Two other third-down situations were made more difficult

because of false starts.

”The penalties are crucial in that situation; You can’t do

that,” Simms said. ”Maybe if we get in some third-down situations

where we aren’t third and a mile, we can convert a few more, but

that’s all about just focusing on first and second down and winning

that battle.”

Simms said while it was disappointing to stall out on drives

last week, the team has made improvements.

”We’re close, but each week is just about fine-tuning those

details. We just need to fight through this and we just need to

make more plays,” he said.