Tennessee football: Vols OC Jim Chaney a master at adapting to personnel

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 29: A general view of Neyland Stadium during the South Carolina Gamecocks game against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 29, 2011 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 29: A general view of Neyland Stadium during the South Carolina Gamecocks game against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 29, 2011 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Tennessee football’s new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will be great at adapting to the personnel of the Volunteers on a yearly basis.

There are two stories to Jim Chaney, but one appears to be sticking right now. That one is that he is a run-first offensive coordinator, which is what Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt wanted when he was trying to replace Tyson Helton.

To be fair, there’s plenty of evidence for that. While working under Kirby Smart, who was a defensive coordinator under Nick Saban just like Pruitt, Chaney ran the ball over 40 times a game all three seasons and threw it fewer than 30 times a game. Having worked under Bret Bielema for two years with the Arkansas Razorbacks, that narrative has stuck.

Here’s the problem: It isn’t true. Chaney was also criticized this year for throwing the ball too often on first down. And he’s famous for his ability to develop quarterbacks in the passing game. So what’s the case with Chaney?

Well, in a manner eerily similar to David Cutcliffe, he can dramatically change his offense to adapt to his personnel. The numbers show that more than anything about Chaney being a run-first offensive coordinator.

Sure, he ran it more times all three years at Georgia. The largest gap was in 2017, when he ran it nearly 45 times a game and threw it less than 21 times a game. But he had two senior running backs that year in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and his starting quarterback in Jacob Eason went down with an injury, so he was starting a freshman all year in Jake Fromm.

This year, he threw it over 25 times a game and still ran it over 40 times a game. But with Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift, it made sense to still run the ball more. Those guys both got 1,000 yards rushing, so clearly it worked.

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But what about his days with Tennessee football? Well, just look at his final year there in 2012. Chaney threw it nearly 40 times a game with Tyler Bray, and he ran it fewer than 35 times a game. That offense also set records through the air. In fact, he threw it more than he ran it all three years with the Vols.

We can also look at his one year with the Pittsburgh Panthers in 2015. He did run it 39 times a game while only throwing it over 26 times a game. But Nathan Peterman was a mobile quarterback, and he was running the ball seven times a game. So many of the runs came with his mobile quarterback.

And although he ran it 15 times more a game with the Arkansas Razorbacks, he was dealing with personnel that Bret Bielema recruited specifically to develop a run-oriented offense. So Chaney’s offense simply adapts to his personnel.

In fact, the biggest determinant as to whether or not he runs or throws it is the situation of the game. With Georgia, his teams have been leading a lot the past two years, which meant it made more sense to run out the clock. Meanwhile, his Tennessee football teams were playing catch-up a lot. So, naturally, he threw it more.

But what about his time with the Purdue Boilermakers? Well, he threw it more than he ran each of his first five seasons there, including the three years he had Drew Brees, when he would throw it 45 times a game. Even the year after Brees left, though, he threw it 51 times a game.

When Kyle Orton took over, Chaney became a bit more run-oriented, and he ran it more than he threw it in 2002 and 2003. But in 2004, when Orton became a senior, Chaney threw it over 40 times a game again.

Simply put, the staple of Chaney’s offense is balance and adaptability, not some run-first system that comes from SEC teams in the 1980s. It just so happens that recently he’s had teams better-suited to run the ball a lot more.

Tennessee football, though, may be in a different position. The Vols were horrendous on the offensive line last year and have a lot of new linemen coming in this year. But they have skill players on the outside, an elite running back who can make plays in the passing or running game, and a quarterback who is tough and has a big arm.

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All that would suggest Chaney will focus on getting his weapons the ball in open space and spread the field this year. But again, it depends on what he sees when he takes over the offense. Some concerns over Chaney may be legitimate. Lots of the analysis is. But the idea that he’s some rush-heavy guy is just not true. History shows he focuses on what his personnel is.