How good will Tennessee’s passing game be this season?
While the running game has been the coaches’ main priority this off-season – for obvious reasons – fans like us at feelslike98.com have dreamed for months about the seemingly unlimited potential of quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Da’Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
All four could legitimately be first round picks in the next two NFL Drafts. Just think about that for a moment.
So what kind of numbers should Tennessee fans expect?
Obviously, season predictions are more often than not very flawed, and many don’t account for injuries and other variables that occur during a season.
However, predicting stats for such a talented group like this one is too good to pass up.
What you’ll see below in an extensive look at what Volunteers fans could expect from our beer bottle-throwing, Jet Ski-riding signal-caller and our version of Earth, Wind and Fire, based on past numbers and some educated guesses.
Let’s get started.
Entering his junior season, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Bray has 12 career starts. He played in four other games during his freshman (2010) year.
Tennessee is 8-4 in games Bray started.
In those 12 starts, Bray is 247-of-424 (58.3 percent) for 3,529 yards (8.3 yards per attempt) with 33 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. That, per game, averages to be 21-of-35 for 294 yards with 2.75 TDs and 1.2 INTs.
He’s thrown at least 30 times in 10 of those games. The only exceptions: 27 attempts at Vandy in 2010 and 24 passes verses Montana in 2011.
Now, what if we discount the 2011 Vanderbilt and Kentucky games, where it was clear Bray was nowhere near 100 percent? His numbers then are 216-of-353 (61.2 percent) for 3,125 yards (8.6 YPA) with 30 TDs and 10 INTs. That averages out to 22-of-35 for 313 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT per game.
More, the healthy trio of Bray, Hunter and Da’Rick has only started and played in two full games (Montana and Cincinnati in 2011). Bray’s combined numbers in those two games are 51-of-65 (78.5 percent) for 698 yards (10.7 YPA) with seven TDs and one INT.
Nothing too crazy so far. Hope you’re still with me.
Getting back to Bray’s 12 starts as a whole. As best I can figure out, Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney called passing plays 58 percent of the time with Bray in the game at quarterback.
In 2011, it was 253 passes verses 201 runs (55.9 percent pass).
In 2010, those numbers are 188 passes verses 118 runs (61.3 percent pass).
(Note: this was a challenging stat to accurately get. You can’t just take the numbers every sees on the final stats. First, Bray wasn’t always in the game. He was taken out for backup Matt Simms in four games and got injured against Georgia last year. Also, sacks and most QB scrambles are counted as run plays, but in reality, they’re supposed to be pass plays. Also, botched snaps – see James Stone at Florida last year – are counted as team rushes.)
Here’s where you might reach too much for numbers. Chaney was the offensive coordinator at Purdue from 1997-2005. Only once did he have a full-time starting quarterback complete at least 61 percent of his passes (Drew Brees, 63.4 percent in 1998). However, in Brees’ other two years as starter (1999-2000) and in Kyle Orton’s three seasons as starter (‘02-‘04), the two completed between 60.5 and 60.8 percent of their passes each year. So, in the six combined seasons Brees and Orton started with Chaney as their OC, they completed between 60.5 and 60.8 percent of their passes in five of those years.
So, how do we put all these numbers together to get a good estimate for Bray’s 2012 season?
We can assume Tennessee’s running game is improved – how could it not – in 2012, and Chaney calls more run plays than the 42 percent he has with Bray under center until this point. Also, let’s assume the Vols have 66 offensive plays per game and play 13 games this season.
Let’s say Chaney calls 52 percent passing plays – running game can better, but there’s just too much talent not to throw. Let’s also say Bray is sacked 13 times (one per game). That would mean Bray should attempt a little more than 33 passes per game to go along with 32 designed run plays.
If Bray completes 60.5 percent of his passes (the lowest a full-time starting QB under Chaney has ever done), he’d average a little more than 20 completions per game.
That’s 262 season completions (on 433 attempts) to spread around among three potential NFL wide-outs, a dependable senior tight end in Mychal Rivera, a trio of running backs and other skill position players.
We’ll also predict Bray throws 33 TDs (2.5 per game) and 13 INTs (1 per game) on the year.
Nearly everything has been said off the field about the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Rogers, who was a first-team All-SEC receiver as a sophomore in 2010. But on the field, he’s lived up to his five-start billing, especially with Bray throwing to him.
Last year, David-Ricky had 44 receptions for 667 yards and 8 TDs in the seven games Bray started. Per game, that’s 6.3 catches for 95.3 yards and 1.1 TDs.
Take out the Vandy and Kentucky games, Rogers caught 32 balls for 513 yards and 6 TDs in the first five games last season. That’s 6.4 catches for 102.6 (16 yards per catch) and 1.2 TDs.
With a healthy Hunter returning and Patterson arriving from junior college, Rogers won’t always be the No. 1 option like he was last year, meaning he could have a hard time matching the 67 receptions, 1,040 receiving yards and 9 TDs he had last year.
Still, Da’Rick is the most dependable and proven Vols’ wide-out. Plus, he’ll most likely be the main short and intermediate target with J-Hunny and CP84 stretching the field. Last season, Da’Rick caught 27.6 percent of Bray’s completions in the first five games.
(Da’Rick and Hunter caught 60.7 percent of Bray’s completions in the first two games. We’ll predict the duo catches 51 percent of Bray’s completions this year).
Let’s assume Rogers’ hauls in 26 percent of those completions. That would give him 68.1 grabs on season (5.3 per game).
Let’s also assume Da’Rick averages 15 yards per reception, slightly less than he did last season. Factoring in the 68 catches, he’d have 1,020 receiving yards on the year.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Hunter is the most physically gifted of the Vols’ receivers, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. Hunter is a true deep-threat developing into an all-around wide-out. He’ll average the most yards per catch on the team, while grabbing fewer passes than Da’Rick.
There aren’t many numbers to go on for Hunter – 32 career receptions for 717 yards (22.4 YPC) and 9 TDs. Because most of his receptions as a freshman were throw-it-up-deep balls, we’ll assume he averages the 18.5 yards per catch this season as he did last year.
Let’s assume he catches 25 percent of Bray’s completions. That would be 65.5 receptions on the year. Factor in the 18.5 yards per catch, Hunter would have 66 catches for 1,221 yards.
56 receptions (Josh Briscoe, 2007), 698 yards (Peerless Price, 1996) and 6 TDs (Briscoe, ’07).
Those are the best single-season numbers a No. 3 WR at Tennessee has collected in each category. Patterson will begin the season most likely as Bray’s No. 4 option (behind Rivera), but he’ll have a bigger and bigger impact as the season progresses.
Let’s assume Patterson catches 13 percent of Bray’s completions. We’ll get his YPC by splitting the difference between Hunter and Da’Rick’s, which is 17 YPC, since CP is supposed to be a mix of the two.
That would give Patterson 34 receptions for 578 yards. By comparison, Zach Rogers and DeAnthony Arnett combined to have 38 catches for 431 yards (11.3 YPC) last season in 12 games.
Tennessee’s 6-foot-3, 244-pound pass-catching tight end hauled in 19 receptions for 248 yards (13 YPC) and a TD in the first five games last year. Despite Bray’s absence in five games, Rivera finished third among SEC tight ends in receptions and receiving yards last season.
Through those first five games last year, Rivera averaged 3.8 catches (16.4 percent of Bray’s completions) and 49.6 yards per game. Given the addition of a more talented No. 3 wide-out in Patterson and other factors, let’s assume Rivera has slightly less numbers, average-wise, in 2012 than he did last season when Bray was healthy.
Let’s say Rivera catches 14.5 percent of Bray’s completions this season. If he averages 13 YPC again, that would put Rivera’s numbers at 38 receptions for 494 yards.
Despite their struggles on the ground, Tennessee’s tailbacks have been effective pass-catchers out of the backfield.
Now-departed Tauren Poole, the starter the past two seasons, caught 21 passes in 2011 and had 22 receptions in 2010.
Sophomore Marlin Lane caught 17 passes for 161 yards and 2 TDs last year, but of that, 12 receptions, 141 yards and both TDs came in the first five game. Rajion Neal split time between tailback and receiver last season and had 13 catches for 269 yards and a TD.Devrin Young had 3 receptions for 25 yards.
It’s safe to assume that Neal, the clear-cut No. 1 tailback if he’s performs like he did in fall camp, would catch more passes than Poole did in each of the last two seasons.
Let’s say Neal has 25 receptions this year, which might even be on the low end. For his career, Neal has 369 yards on 20 receptions (18.5 YPC). Let’s assume his YPC goes down because he’ll be catching more passes out of the backfield and not as a WR.
If he averages 12 yards per reception, Neal would have 25 catches for 350 yards this season.
Let’s also predict Lane and Young will combine to have 20 receptions for 240 yards (12 YPC).
To this point, we’ve accounted for 251 of Bray’s 262 completions. The remaining 11 catches will be spread out among Zach Rogers, Brendan Downs, Ben Bartholomew, Jacob Carter, freshmen receivers, Queshaun Watson, etc.
Let’s say those 11 receptions are for 132 yards (12 YPC).
Give Him Six
Noticeably missing from the receiving stats is touchdowns. Generally, the players with the most catches score the most. There’s always exceptions (see Hunter’s seven TDs on 17 receptions in 2010). For the Vols this year, receiving touchdowns probably won’t be too unordinary.
Let’s assume Bray throws 33 TDs. Essentially half of those (17) will be to either Da’Rick or Hunter. This could be Da’Rick scoring 10 and Hunter 7, or Pretti Boi 8 and Justin 9. For this, let’s say Hunter hauls in 10 TDs and Da’Rick grabs 7. Regardless, expect at least half of Bray’s scoring strikes to go to his two best weapons.
Rivera caught just one TD pass last year, in the Cincinnati game. This year, let’s assume he catches 3 because of better match-ups.
Let’s predict Patterson has 4 receiving scores. (He’ll add at least another TD on special teams).
Give Neal 3 receiving TDs out of the backfield, as well as 3 split among Lane and Young.
The remaining three passing touchdowns will come from the rest of the roster.
Adding it all up
Tyler Bray: 262-of-433 (60.5 percent) for 3,985 yards (9.4 YPA) with 33 TDs and 13 INTs.
Da’Rick Rogers: 68 receptions for 1,020 yards (15 YPC) and 7 TDs.
Justin Hunter: 66 receptions for 1,221 yards (19 YPC) and 10 TDs.
Cordarrelle Patterson: 34 receptions for 578 yards (17 YPC) and 5 TDs.
Mychal Rivera: 38 receptions for 494 yards (13 YPC) and 4 TDs.
Rajion Neal: 25 receptions for 350 yards (12 YPC) and 4 TDs.
Marlin Lane/Devrin Young: 20 receptions for 240 yards (12 YPC) and 4 TDs.
The rest: 11 receptions for 132 yards (12 YPC) and 3 TDs.
Only the season will tell. For comparison, though, here are the stats of Arkansas’ passing game in each of the past two years. Remember, Dooley said the Razorbacks were the most similar SEC team to Tennessee in terms of offense when Bobby Petrino was coach. The Razorbacks’ 2010 season is the more comparable of the two relating to Tennessee’ 2012 season. It was Ryan Mallett’s second full season as the starting QB, the top receivers were juniors and they had a senior pass-catching tight end.
Tyler Wilson in 2011: 277-of-438 (63.2 percent) for 3,638 yards (8.3 YPA) with 24 TDs and 6 INTs. Four players had more than 500 receiving yards. TD breakdown: WR Jarius Wright – 12, WR Cobi Hamilton - 4 and WR Joe Adams 3.
Mallett in 2010: 266-of-411 (64.7 percent) for 3,869 yards (9.4 YPA) with 32 TDs and 12 INTs. Five players had more than 600 receiving yards. (Note: WR Greg Childs only played eight games due to injury). TD breakdown: WRs Adams, Childs and Hamilton – 6 each, Wright – 5, TE D.J. Williams and RB Ronnie Wingo – 4 each.
There’s probably more excitement surrounding this year’s Vol air attack than ever before, which says a lot since Tennessee is Wide Receiver U. Yet, as Dooley cautioned, only one member of it, Da’Rick, has produced at an All-SEC level for a full season. But isn’t there just too much potential and too many talented players for the passing game not to put up record-breaking numbers, like the ones below?
Tennessee single-season records:
Attempts – 519, Erik Ainge (2007); 4th-most in SEC history
Completions – 325, Ainge (‘07); 4th-most in SEC history
Passing yards – 3,819, Peyton Manning (1997); 5th-most in SEC history
TD passes – 36, Manning (’97); 4th-most in SEC history
Receptions – 76, Marcus Nash (‘97); tied for 20th-best in SEC history
Receiving yards – 1,298, Robert Meachem (2006); 6th-most in SEC history
TD catches – 13, Nash (’97); tied for 8th-best in SEC history
Receptions by a TE – 41, Chris Brown (‘07)
Receiving yards by a TE – 493, Jason Witten (2002)
TD catches by a TE – 7, Austin Denney (1966)
How many do you think could be broken this year? We’ll all start to find out Aug. 31 in the Georgia Dome.