Fourth downs have not been friendly this season for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Entering Saturday night's game (7 on ESPN) at Kentucky, the No. 21 Vols have converted just three of 13 fourth-down opportunities for a 23.1% success rate that ranks 129th among the 133 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. In Tennessee's three contests against its stiffest competition — the loss at Florida, the triumph over Texas A&M and last Saturday's setback at Alabama — the Vols have gone for it eight times on fourth down and haven't converted any.
"At the end of the day, we've got to find a way to pick up the first down," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said earlier this week in a news conference. "We've used a lot of different formations. We've been under center. We've been in the gun. We've used it all, and we've got to find a way to pick it up in those situations."
What about the "Tush Push?"
The NFL's Philadelphia Eagles have developed a short-yardage play that has become virtually unstoppable. It entails a bunched formation with the usual aggressive line surge off of the snap, but it also involves a running back and a receiver pushing quarterback Jalen Hurts forward into the pile of humanity.
Hurts has been known for his incredible lower-body strength since his days at Alabama, and the Tush Push has more than a 93% success rate in each of the past two seasons. Philadelphia had four successful fourth-and-1 conversions during Sunday night's 31-17 downing of the Miami Dolphins, with Eagles coach Nick Sirianni telling reporters afterward, "Every first down is a first-and-9."
"I do think a lot of people are trying to emulate that," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "I've seen it more than I've ever seen it before. I can't say everybody, but there are a lot of people doing that. Not everybody has that same kind of quarterback, and you have to make decisions about the O-line and how the O-line stacks up.
"I don't know that the Eagles get enough credit for their offensive line along with Jalen."
A physical quarterback certainly helps in fourth-and-short situations, and two of the bigger bodies in the Southeastern Conference are Tennessee's Joe Milton III, who is 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, and KJ Jefferson of Arkansas, who is 6-3 and 247. Yet the Vols and Razorbacks have struggled all year in fourth-and-short.
"I think it has a lot to do with who you're playing, obviously," Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. "We've tried fast sneaks. We've tried inside zone. We've tried a stretch play, and our fourth-down conversion rate is not bad until you get down to 1 yard. I don't know exactly why. The D-linemen are certainly bigger than they have been, but your O-line is usually bigger than it has been, too.
"We all have to have the possibility of tossing the ball outside and doing some things that the old school wouldn't be comfortable with, because the closest way to get a yard has always been going up the middle. It's not a big deal when you get no yards on first down, but boy is it big on fourth-and-1."
Pittman tried the Tush Push formation for the first time in last Saturday's 7-3 home loss to Mississippi State. The Razorbacks had the necessary surge to covert it, but Jefferson fumbled away the ball and thus the possession.
Heupel has yet to give the unique attempt a go.
"Practicing your goal-line situations during the course of the season and your short-yardage is one of the tougher things to do in terms of trying to get the true tempo and speed of what it's going to be and what it's going to feel like during the course of a football game," Heupel said. "It's actually something we did study during the offseason, though I didn't realize it was called the Tush Push.
"They're extremely, extremely good at it, and that's because of the five guys they've got up front. Their center is an All-Pro and does an unbelievable job, and their quarterback is dynamic with it, too. They've got a lot of elements to make that work, and it's certainly something that we have looked at."
Hadden out for year
Tennessee will play the rest of this season without fifth-year senior cornerback Kamal Hadden, who underwent surgery Thursday for a shoulder injury he sustained during the first half of last weekend's 34-20 loss at Alabama.
The 6-1, 197-pounder from River Rouge, Michigan, had amassed 19 tackles, eight pass breakups and three interceptions this season. He is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by senior Doneiko Slaughter.
A sizzling Squirrel
Lost in the storylines of Tennessee's loss in Tuscaloosa was the play of sophomore receiver Squirrel White, who had 10 catches for 111 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown that capped the opening possession for the Vols.
"When the ball has come his way, he has played really effectively," Heupel said Thursday in his final news conference of the week. "As a young player, he has done a great job at continuing to develop. He did that last year, and he's done that this season, too.
"There are going to be one-on-ones out on the perimeter in this game, and he's got to play with great technique and go win some of those matchups."
White has 416 yards on 39 receptions, with his catch total more than double that of Ramel Keyton (19). Bru McCoy had 17 receptions before his season-ending ankle injury during the fifth game against South Carolina.
Since Heupel arrived in Knoxville in January 2021, the Tennessee-Kentucky game has pitted the fastest- and slowest-moving offenses in the SEC.
"You understand the flow of this football game," Heupel said. "They tend to snap it a little bit slower than we do from the whistle to the next play. You've got to plan on there being fewer possessions in this game just because of the pace of play on the other side of it.
"Whether it's a 13-possession game or a 10-possession game, you have to maximize your opportunities."
Odds and ends
Tennessee will wear white jerseys and white pants for the third time this season, having lost in its "Stormtrooper" look at Florida and at Alabama. ... Heupel on redshirt junior right tackle Gerald Mincey, who had to leave the Texas A&M and Alabama games due to injury: "He's been with us all week long. He's been out there and looked good." ... The Vols have their third commitment for the 2025 signing class, receiving a nonbinding pledge from three-star running back Justin Baker (5-10, 205) out of Buford High School near Atlanta.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].