For the past few years, Butch Jones has been searching for a big play receiver. Finally, the Vols may have found their man. Josh Malone has had a fantastic start to the 2016 season, catching 9 passes for 196 yards and 4 touchdowns in just three games. Two of those touchdowns came in the Ohio game, as Malone’s performance was a big factor in Tennessee’s win.
His first score came on the third play of the game. After a big kickoff return and long run, Tennessee had the ball in scoring position at the Bobcats’ 20 yard line. Mike DeBord dialed up one of his favorite passing plays, Four Verticals, with a playaction fake.
Four Verticals is pretty much what it sounds like. Four receivers will run vertical routes, evenly spaced across the field. The two outside receivers will run down the numbers, while the two inside receivers will aim for the hash.
While some might imagine a play with all four receivers going deep as a Hail Mary pass, this is not the case. The play design is for Dobbs to get the ball out of his hands fairly quickly, hitting his receiver at a depth of 15-25 yards.
On this play, the Vols lined up in a trips formation with the three receivers to the field in a bunch alignment. Malone, the flanker, ran the inside seam route, while Tyler Byrd, the slot, ran a wheel route, serving as the outside vertical player. The key to this play was the route by Ethan Wolf. Wolf is running a “bender” route. His aiming point is the hash on the far side of the field.
The key defender for Dobbs to read is the strong safety (red square in the above diagram). By pre-snap alignment, Ohio is showing Quarters coverage. Quarters is actually a good way to defend Four Verticals, but with three receivers to the field, Tennessee is able to put the strong safety in conflict.
As you can see below, the safety opens his hips towards Wolf on the bender route. The corner is covering Malone with outside leverage, expecting inside help from the safety. As soon as Dobbs saw the safety look towards Wolf, he knew he had Malone.
Wolf’s route served to pull the safety just far enough away for Dobbs to fit the ball in-between the two defenders, and Malone used his 6’3” frame to go up and snag the ball for the touchdown.
Later in the first quarter, Malone made his second reception on a critical third down play.
Malone plays the flanker position for the Vols, and lines up as the furthest receiver to the sideline on almost every snap. But here, he lined up as the slot receiver, in between Jauan Jennings and Ethan Wolf in a trips formation.
Why? Matchups. This play is a great illustration of how an offensive coordinator can use formations and player alignment to put his players in a position to succeed. Here, DeBord is able to get Malone, his best receiver, matched up with a linebacker, rather than a corner, by putting him in the slot.
By alignment, Ohio is once again showing Quarters coverage. As we saw on the first play, the defensive backs are responsible for the receivers on any vertical routes. However, the linebackers are responsible for underneath routes.
DeBord called for Wolf and Malone to both run slant routes. The idea behind the concept was similar to the one used on Malone’s touchdown. Wolf’s slant route was designed to pull the middle linebacker towards the middle of the field, leaving Malone isolated with a linebacker. Once again, DeBord created a favorable matchup for Malone, using the formation and route concept to give him space to make a play.
Malone ran a fantastic route, and the linebacker never had a chance. Tennessee’s receiver stuck his outside foot in the ground, cut inside and left the linebacker on his back. With Wolf’s route opening up the middle, Dobbs was able to hit the open Malone for the first down.
Malone’s final catch of the day was perhaps his most important. Leading 21-19 in the fourth quarter, Malone’s second touchdown reception would put the Vols up 28-19, which would prove to be an insurmountable lead.
DeBord went back to a similar concept as on the first touchdown. He called for another playaction pass with center Dylan Wiesman pulling to sell the run. This time, the route concept was Post/Wheel. Once again, Ohio showed Quarters coverage pre-snap, making the strong safety Dobbs’ read.
At the snap, Dobbs faked a handoff to Jalen Hurd. The strong safety stepped downhill towards the run, and then began to track Wolf on the wheel route. Malone beat the corner on an inside cut on the post route. With the safety committed to cover Wolf, the middle of the field was wide open.
This is just what Dobbs was hoping for. With the no deep middle defender, he knew Malone would be open. Dobbs lobbed the ball up over the middle and, even though the pass was a little behind, Malone reached back and made the catch in traffic for the score.
Malone’s size gives him an advantage over smaller defenders, and gives Dobbs a big target, while his speed makes him a threat downfield. He’s shown potential in the past, but in his junior year, Malone has finally proven himself as a consistent threat.
Malone has had a big season so far, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to slow down anytime soon. His emergence as the big play receiver the Vols were looking for will be critical to the success of the offense this season. He has already proven to be one of the most important players on this roster, making a big play in each of Tennessee’s three games that has proven vital to a Volunteer victory.
Editor’s Note: Seth Price writes Vols Film Study weekly for FOX Sports Knoxville. You can see more of his work at Football Concepts. He is also the author of Fast and Furious: Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteer’s Offense, which is available on Amazon.com.