On January 9th, 2019 head coach Jeremy Pruitt officially declared Jim Chaney the new offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Volunteers. The wait was over, we had our coach. Former players, national media, local media, and fans all seemed to agree that Coach Pruitt, faced with perhaps his toughest decision yet as a head football coach, had gotten it right. He was able to lure a successful coordinator away from one of Tennessee’s biggest division rivals — for the low, low price of $1.225M per year escalating to $1.425M per year by the 2021 season. Who could possibly have been upset about this hire?
Me. That’s right. Me.
But, it’s not for the reason you might think. I agree with Coach Pruitt when he said, “Jim couldn’t be a better fit for our program.” Coach Chaney’s resume as a play-caller, and as a developer of quarterbacks, speaks for itself. So, why wasn’t I thrilled when Tennessee announced the Coach Chaney hire? Because I’m the film breakdown guy. This hire meant I had the appalling responsibility of watching Georgia, Arkansas, and early 2010’s Tennessee football - now don’t get me wrong those Vols’ offenses were pretty good, but remembering that our best finish was 3rd in the SEC-East during that era is still painful - in order to better understand Coach Chaney’s scheme, and how it might be implemented at Tennessee. I didn’t watch these other teams because I wanted to, Vol-Nation. I did it because I love you. Never forget that.
If I had to describe Coach Chaney’s offense in three words based on what I’ve seen so far on the field I would say: balanced, multiple, and simple. Now, two of these three attributes sound great. Balanced offenses keep the defense guessing with regard to run or pass. An offense that is multiple is able to exploit matchup advantages through various personnel groups and formations. But, is being simple on offense a good thing? I could write an entire article dedicated to answering that question alone. To keep it brief, I’ll simply draw upon the wisdom of Ron Swanson, “never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” If the 2018 Tennessee offense taught us anything it’s that being dedicated to one simple scheme is better than trying many different schemes and hoping it all comes together. So, personally, I have no problem with keeping it simple, especially at the college level.
I figured a good starting point to get into Coach Chaney’s offense would be to a look back at how he attacked the Vols last season. I still haven’t figured out how they ran the ‘let the QB fumble and have the TE scoop the ball up and run it 31 yards for a touchdown’ play yet, but I hope Coach Chaney brought it with him to Tennessee.
The Basic Split-Zone
Coach Chaney employs what is predominately a zone-scheme running attack. If you’re unfamiliar with this terminology it simply means that the offensive line is moving as a unit in the same direction to make their blocks. Against Tennessee, Chaney used the zone scheme early and often. Below is the very first running play of the game, called “Split-Zone.” This play is a type of zone running play where one player blocks back, in the opposite direction of the offensive line, to seal the backside edge.
In this example the offensive line is blocking to their right, with an H-Back blocking across their flow to the left. The H-Back is able to put a huge hit onto Tennessee’s outside LB, which creates a cutback lane for the running back to “bend” into for a nice gain. Running backs in the zone scheme are coached to “bend”, “bang”, or “bounce” the play based on their read of the offensive linemen. Here is the play in full:
A gain of 13-yards and a first down. Immediately following this run Georgia aligned in the following formation.
Although the personnel group remains unchanged, with two TEs and one RB, the formation is completely different. They went from a balanced 2 x 2 set to a 3 x 1 formation. The Trips are bunched, which gives the defense something extra to consider in terms of coverage should the offense decide to pass. The quarterback aligns under center rather than in the shotgun. Despite this shift in appearance ultimately Georgia runs the exact same “Split-Zone” play as the one before, with similar success.
The offensive players use essentially the same technique on both plays. By running the same concept from drastically different looks Coach Chaney is able to keep his offense simple for the players, yet effective.
Split-Zone With A Running QB
Later in the first half of the game Georgia attempted to get freshman sensation Justin Fields more involved. I thought this was a great example of how Coach Chaney is able to be multiple on offense while maintaining the simplicity described previously.
I touched briefly in the above section on one example of how Coach Chaney’s offense is multiple - entirely different formations from the same personnel group on back-to-back plays. When Fields entered the game you could see many other methods Coach Chaney can use to demonstrate multiplicity.
The first method is by varying skill set. By substituting Justin Fields — a gifted runner — for Jake Fromm — more of a pocket passer — the defense is confronted with a different challenge. Now they must pay greater attention to the possibility of a quarterback run. A second method to being multiple is by changing the personnel group. With Fields in the game Georgia also shifted from two TEs and two WRs to one TE and three WRs. This then forces the defense to change personnel as well, from their base 3-4 to their Nickel look, in order to counter the speed threat offered by the additional receiver. A final method to being multiple is to again change the formation. Georgia shifts from more condensed formations (double TEs or bunch-trips) to one that is much more spread out. Here is an example of Georgia’s alignment after all of those changes.
Although so much is different in terms of appearance, Coach Chaney maintained simplicity by running the same Split-Zone concept that we saw above.
The H-Back is working opposite of the flow of the offensive line. Based on Tennessee’s alignment of the end man on the defensive line, Alexis Johnson Jr. in this case, is washed down by the offensive tackle. With no backside threat to seal off the H-Back is able to continue his path up to the second level and block Tennessee’s middle linebacker.
If, for whatever reason, Tennessee did have a defender on the line of scrimmage and outside of the offensive tackle Georgia easily could have turned this into a “read” play. The offensive line would have blocked in the same way, and the H-Back would arc around the end man to the second level. The quarterback would then read the end man on the line of scrimmage and decide to either give or pull the ball. If the quarterback makes the correct read the offense will have a numeric advantage running the football with either the running back or the quarterback. This has exciting implications for Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano who has shown — albeit on an inconsistent basis — that he can be a capable runner.
As you can see, the concept remains relatively simple. However, the multiple different skill-sets, formations, and personnel groups that can be utilized present a huge stress on the defense.
Split-Zone To Open Up The Passing Game
Finally, I want to quickly outline how this same simple concept can improve the efficiency of the passing game. To do this I’ll start with the first play of the game for the Georgia offense.
They motion star receiver Mecole Hardman to an H-Back position, and on the snap of the ball he sprints behind offensive line, in the opposite direction of their movement. It looks like the same Split-Zone play, just with a wide receiver performing the task of sealing off the backside edge — as the H-Back did in previous examples. However, Hardman slips into the flat and Riley Ridley runs the drag route across the field from the backside. Tennessee’s middle linebackers play the run action, anticipating the Split-Zone play, and their outside linebacker commits to Fromm. In combination, this opens up space for Ridley on the drag and Hardman in the flat. Ultimately Jake Fromm is able to make a relatively easy throw despite holding onto the ball for slightly too long and taking a big hit.
Georgia comes back to the same concept later in the game. Again a receiver motions to an H-Back/Wing position before the snap. After the snap he sprints behind the offensive line in the opposite direction of their blocks, which gives the backside seal appearance. The receiver, Jeremiah Holloman in this example, is able to fight through Tennessee’s outside linebacker and outrun the Tennessee defense to the flat. Fromm is able to make an easy throw — completing the ball four yards behind the line of scrimmage — to his receiver in space, which leads to a nice gain and a first down inside the Tennessee 5-yard line.
I hope these examples were helpful at demonstrating the balance, multiplicity, and simplicity that I believe Jim Chaney brings back to Tennessee.