One of Derek Dooley’s most core offensive philosophies wasn’t born where one might expect.
The more-tight-ends-the-merrier approach didn’t come from the practice field as Dooley looked over one of the handful of teams he’s coached in his career. And it didn’t even come in an offensive meeting.
The new Tennessee coach’s theory of tight ends first came from watching his mentor, Alabama coach Nick Saban, prepare for opposing teams that relied heavily on tight ends.
“It stems from sitting there for seven years in so many defensive meetings with Nick,” Dooley said Tuesday. “You kind of listen to what gives defenses problems. Whenever you have an offense with two tight ends, you can do a lot of things.”
With Saban at LSU, Dooley learned that more tight ends mean more versatility. In the NFL, Dooley refined the craft of coaching tight ends, the position he played in high school before moving to receiver in college.
“You kind of get your Ph.D. in the X’s and O’s when you go to the NFL,” Dooley said. “That really kind of took it up another level.”
That education also taught Dooley the limitations of using a second tight end over having a fullback on the field.
“A good second tight end is never going to be as good as a great fullback on certain plays,” Dooley said. “But you’re talking about really two or three runs (where the fullback is the better option).
“But what (the second tight end) brings is a whole other dimension of plays you can run that you cannot run with a fullback. When a fullback goes in a game, there are a certain number of plays that the defense knows you’re going to run.”
Not so with a second tight end. In the blink of an audible, Dooley’s Vols will eventually be able to shift two tight ends outside creating a four-receiver package or shift one tight end into the backfield creating a two running back look.
“It creates some mismatch problems for the defense,” Dooley said. “They’ve got to make a decision on what they’re defending.
“… When you’re calling a defense, what do you call? And also who do you put in?”
Those pre-snap mismatches will be key for UT’s play calling, which will likely be handled by second-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who is also a proponent of multiple tight ends.
If a defense sends extra defensive backs in the game, UT can lean on the run. If a defense stays base, a pass may be the better option.
Those hypothetical situations might not arise in 2010. The Vols have only one proven tight end, Luke Stocker. Behind him, there’s junior Ben Bartholomew, transfer Daniel Adderley from Miami and a host of walk-ons.
“I think you’re going to see we’re always going to play to our personnel,” Dooley said. “If we end up having three first-round wideouts, we’re probably going to be in three wideout a lot. Who’s our quarterback? Is he a mobile guy? Is he a drop-back guy?
“We’re always going to play to our personnel, but I do think you have a general philosophy you want to get to.”
The philosophy was in full effect when UT moved Austin Johnson from fullback to linebacker in January. That move, however, doesn’t mean the roster will be devoid of fullbacks under Dooley.
“You’ve always got to have a fullback,” Dooley said. “There’s a place for him. You’ve always got to have the ability to go four wideouts (too), being good at everything.
“But those every down plays, the multiples that two tight ends bring are greater than any other grouping you can have.”
Senior Kevin Cooper is the only fullback on UT’s roster with any experience. Freshman Channing Fugate is listed at fullback but could play a number of positions. Walk-on junior Sam Edgmon could provide depth if needed.
Dooley said he’s been pleased with Cooper, the player that looks to be the best — if not the only — option at fullback this fall.
“He’s doing great,” Dooley said. “He did a great job last year. He’s going to have a critical role for us next year.”
If something were to happen to Cooper, UT could use a tight end as an H-back, shifting into the backfield to become a lead blocker.
Bartholomew said there’s some carryover between the two positions, but the differences are significant.
“It’s a different kind of blocking,” he said. “Fullback is hard, but you also get a running start. Tight end is hard, but at the same time you’re already on him, so it’s hard to miss him.”
As much as any position on the field, a lead-blocking fullback embodies toughness. Bartholomew said no one need worry that UT will be less physical without a fullback in the game.
“The tight ends have to be as tough as the fullback or tougher,” he said. “You definitely can be as physical — or more physical — with two tights.”
That’s what the Vols will be working on Thursday in their second practice in full pads.