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One of the biggest catch phrases Tennessee football coach Butch Jones loves to use over and over again when talking to his team and to the media is "consistency of performance."
It's something every coach harps on, but Jones dissects it so much during film study that he points out breakdowns in mechanics repetition from play to play.
It's a cornerstone of playing winning football, he believes.
Considering how young the Vols have been (and still are) over the course of Jones' three years in Knoxville, it hasn't always been an easy aspect to teach. But entering a season where UT is expected to at least compete and possibly contend, it'll be scrutinized even more closely.
So, who on Tennessee's roster has proved to be consistent forces for the Vols? There are several, and it's no surprise that the vast majority of those deserving to be on this list are upperclassmen.
One factor that was weighed heavily in devising this list was proving consistency over the course of time. Most players on this list have done it for years, and they are just perfecting their crafts as they mature. The one underclassman who made the list belongs because of his uncanny consistency of excellence.
These guys may not always get the headlines as being the biggest stars on the team, but Tennessee can count on them every time they step on the field.
You may not always hear safety Brian Randolph's name, but at times when he hasn't been on the field, the Vols have missed him desperately. Also, you don't hear Cameron Sutton's name a lot because of the position he plays.
Let's take a look at the five most consistent players on Tennessee's roster.
It's been a tough few years, but Texas football has no shortage of candidates for the top-10 players of its long history.
The Longhorns have come a long way since their first team played four games in 1893. They've won four national championships with 32 conference titles and had two players hoist the Heisman Trophy.
The road to those accomplishments were paved by a long line of great football players, starting with Bobby Layne in the 1940s, then extending all the way to Vince Young and Colt McCoy in the 2000s.
Some of them won national awards and shattered school records, others displayed amazing consistency in helping their teams achieve greatness as a whole. But they all made their mark on the history of the program and set the standard for every future player who wants to enjoy similar success.
Someone has to get production from the Michigan Wolverines’ wide receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks. Evidently, one offensive coordinator—Tim Drevno—wasn’t enough, so head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to bring along Jedd Fisch to handle the finer points of the aerial game.
Tabbing Fisch as the passing game coordinator was the correct move.
With collegiate experience dating back to 1999, Fisch has accumulated quite the resume while working with some of the game’s most respected coaches and coordinators.
Prior to joining Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, Fisch handled offensive coordinator duties with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite the team’s struggles, he found ways to improve quarterbacks Blake Bortles, Chad Henne and Denard Robinson.
And, really, he didn’t only “improve” Robinson—he flipped “Shoelace” from a quarterback into a running back/receiver. That proved to be another correct move. Robinson, who missed three games due to injury in 2014, rushed for 582 yards and two scores. He also caught 23 of 31 intended passes for 124 yards.
Small adjustments can make a difference.
Fisch's resume could stand up to any comparable coach's track record in the game.
And, yes, he’s done great things on both sides of the ball with a few players, teams and high-profile coaches, such as Seattle's Pete Carroll (QB), then-Houston's Dom Capers (assistant to the coach) and then-Denver's Mike Shanahan (WR). His knowledge of offense and defense has been enriched at every stop of his career.
Part of having success is knowing and exploiting the opponents' weakness(es). It's safe to say that Fisch is well-versed in that regard.
But none of that will matter if he can’t squeeze every ounce of potential from—and form genuine relationships with—Jake Rudock, the assumed starting quarterback, and a stable of pass-catching options which include but aren’t limited to receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Freddy Canteen, Brian Cole and Maurice Ways, and tight ends Jake Butt, Ian Bunting and A.J. Williams.
Cruise with Rudock
As the situation stands today, Rudock seems to be Michigan’s most obvious game-ready option for Sept. 3 against the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
Of course, the circumstances could change during camp, but Rudock has certainly cemented himself as the Wolverines’ mid- to late-June starter.
In 2010 and 2011, Fisch, then the Miami Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator, recruited Rudock, who was then a star at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
A wise man would assume that Fisch and Harbaugh surveyed the situation at hand—the lack of a seasoned signal-caller—and viewed Rudock as the ideal game manager, prompting them to lure the graduated senior from Iowa to Ann Arbor this past spring.
As a guy who does a lot of things at a satisfactory level but not many in exemplary fashion, the 25-game starter has enough poise to serve as a base for Fisch.
Although most Michigan fans probably want to see Fisch air out the ball each Saturday, keeping things simple with Rudock and the receivers may be the best call.
For example, remember the game plan devised by Al Borges for Shane Morris during the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: It was the one that allowed Morris, then a freshman, to play at a relatively comfortable pace without having to do too much.
It may sound odd to cite Borges at this time, but there is a method to the madness.
In terms of how to insert a quarterback into a shaky situation, Borges nailed it. While different at its core, this year’s quarterback situation is also shaky.
With that said, using a slightly revised, more energetic approach based on the same principles may do the trick with Rudock, who would rely on pass-catchers to make plays rather than playing the role of hero.
Again, the term “game manager” certainly applies. Just check out the supporting numbers provided by Chad Leistikow of Hawk Central:
Rudock leaves Iowa as its No. 8 all-time passer with 4,819 yards in 25 career games, all as a starter while compiling a 14-11 record. He was intercepted just 18 times, or on 2.6 percent of his 691 career attempts—a ball-security stat that Harbaugh was known for as a player and now as a coach.
Rudock's five interceptions last fall (on 345 attempts) were the fewest by any Big Ten starter.
Should Michigan's No. 1-ranked experience, per Phil Steele, show up on the offensive line, Rudock could end up having a career year with Fisch.
For the sake of space, the following is a breakdown of situations in which Rudock thrives, per his ESPN.com splits from the 2014 season:
- Manageable third/fourth downs: He threw seven of 16 touchdowns when the Hawkeyes needed three to eight yards to move the sticks.
- Playing vs. the Big Ten: He threw 11 touchdowns with just three picks and completed 60 percent of his passes against conference foes.
- The second half: Although his yards per attempt was nearly two yards lower than in the first half, he threw 10 touchdowns during the third and fourth quarters this past season.
- Get going in the first: Rudock completed 66.3 percent of his passes in the first half (8.06 YPA).
- Goal-line stands: He was sacked zero times and rushed for three touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, demonstrating the ability to remain cool during crunch time. He also threw eight touchdowns compared to one interception (costly red-zone pick in loss to Nebraska).
Now to balance the equation, the following is a list of what stalled Rudock in 2014:
- Red zone: He threw 12 touchdowns while inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, but he also completed just 51 percent of his passes.
- On 3rd-and-long (8-10 yards): Rudock completed just 48.3 percent of his passes and had zero touchdown passes.
- Third-down picks: Rudock threw three of five interceptions on third downs.
As always, stats are open to interpretation and can be skewed to make a point. What happened with Rudock at Iowa won’t necessarily transpire in Ann Arbor.
Meanwhile, Fisch likely knows all about Rudock’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as when and how to utilize him. It’s also likely that some of these examples have been discussed between them.
If all goes well, Butt could end up having a monstrous junior year. That'd be one way to kick the passing game into gear right from the start.
Previously hampered by a pair of ACL injuries, the 6'6", 248-pounder is Michigan's largest target. And since Rudock is decent in goal-to-go situations, Butt could become a powerful force with the game on the line.
Whether as the red-zone safety net or the go-to option on third downs, Butt could become Rudock's Michigan version of Jake Duzey, a similarly sized tight end who caught 36 passes for 392 yards and three touchdowns for Iowa in 2014 (10.9 yards per catch).
Together, Darboh and Chesson have made 46 appearances for the Wolverines. There's no need to do the math—that's a lot more than anyone else on the roster, times two or three.
Due to their experience, they need to be main features of the offense. At 6'2" and 216 pounds, a chiseled Darboh is designed for securing the deep ball, but he's a reliable inside option, too. At 6'3" and 207 pounds, Chesson works best while flashing inside and outside. During spring availability, he said that the receivers were picking up on Fisch's teachings and getting comfortable with quarterbacks.
That was said prior to Rudock's arrival, so it'd be fair to assume that the addition of a more experienced arm would help expedite the learning process.
With guidance from Fisch, Darboh and Chesson could avoid fizzling out in the second half. Per ESPN.com, Darboh caught 18 passes in each half this past season. However, he averaged 16.9 YPC prior to halftime and just 9.3 afterward. Chesson caught 10 passes in the first half compared to four in the second.
In the not-so-distant past, Michigan actually had a viable one-two punch. That was Devin Funchess, the big-play guy, and Jeremy Gallon, the speedy slasher.
Butt looks like the big-play guy, but the Wolverines remain in search of a slot threat. Developing Canteen, Cole or even Drake Harris for the job is imperative.
Things don't have to be perfect for Fisch, but he needs at least one serviceable athlete at each position in order to implement his system. A coach can't install it if he doesn't have the players.
On the Same Page
As mentioned above, relationships will be for Fisch, the staff and the players. It's a buzz-phrase, sure, but "getting on the same page" pretty much covers the bases, which in turn should tie together the loose ends.
For the past three years, Michigan's offensive line has been one of the worst in all of college football. Considering the levels of perceived talent and experience, that shouldn't have been the case.
Drevno is known for crafting O-lines. His 11-year relationship with Harbaugh should pay dividends this season. Harbaugh likes power football, and power football needs an O-line. Fisch needs an O-line to set the course for Rudock and beyond.
The sooner Fisch and Drevno become buddy-buddy, the better for the program. It's all about continuity, and establishing an open line of communication with Jay Harbaugh wouldn't hurt, either.
Transitions don't happen overnight. Typically, they don't happen within a year, either. But just like he did in Jacksonville, per John Oehser of Jaguars.com, Fisch is constantly assessing the who, what, when, where and why with his personnel in Ann Arbor.
The who, when, where and why will fall together in time. But as of now, Fisch absolutely knows what he must do, and that's rekindle the fire of a passing offense that finished No. 14 in the Big Ten and No. 112 among FBS programs.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world, obviously, it's something you have to work at," Fisch told MGoBlue.com (h/t MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner). "It starts with the quarterback, and then pass protection. We'll constantly emphasize precision, that's where it starts and stops.
"Everyone has to be on the same page, and we'll be very detailed."
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability.
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