Moving the chains

Watching Tennessee's offense this fall is a moving experience. Every time fans look up, the Vols seem to be moving the first-down chains.

That's mainly because, in a span of 12 months, the Big Orange has gone from being the NCAA's worst team on third down to being its best team on third down.

Four games into the 2010 season Tennessee had attempted 58 third-down conversions. The Vols had converted just 11 times, a putrid 18.9-percent success rate.

Incredibly, four games into the 2011 season Tennessee again has attempted 58 third-down conversions. The Vols have converted 36 times, an amazing 62.1-percent success rate that shares the NCAA lead.

Tennessee's offensive coordinator says the dramatic turnaround is ridiculously easy to explain.

"Execution. The kids know the plays," Jim Chaney said following Wednesday's practice. "We're running the same plays we ran last year; we're just running 'em better.

"Somebody once said that if you do something 10,000 times you become an expert at it. We're coming closer to that 10,000 than we were last year, so let's just chalk it up to math. We're more familiar with what we're doing."

A year ago Chaney blamed Tennessee's third-down futility on a lack of production on first and second downs, leaving the Vols with a lot of third-and-long situations. This fall the Big Orange is doing better on the earlier downs, leaving itself with more manageable third-down opportunities.

"That sure helps," Chaney said, "and it appears like we are."

Even when this year's Vols face third and 10, however, they seem absolutely certain they'll convert. That could be a trickle-down effect from 6-foot-6 sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who is as confident as he is tall.

"I think it usually stems from that position," Chaney said. "When you have to throw the ball and they (teammates) believe he's going to make a good decision and throw it accurately, the receivers and everybody else plays better."

Junior tight end Mychal Rivera suggests that Bray's confidence energizes every member of Tennessee's offensive unit, especially when the Vols need to convert a crucial third-down play.

"Tyler's a great leader," Rivera said. "When he breaks the huddle you look into his eyes and you see no fear. He's ready to make big plays, and that gives you the confidence to know he might throw you the ball and you might make a big play. His confidence rubs off."

Sophomore guard Zach Fulton agreed, noting: "Having a guy like Bray really does help."

Having a creative thinker pushing the buttons helps, too, and the Vols have that in Chaney, who previously proved his play-calling skills at Purdue. He deserves a sizable share of the credit for Tennessee's success moving the chains.

"The third-down success, that's our confidence in Tyler's arm and that's our confidence in Coach Chaney's calls," senior tailback Tauren Poole said. "It's all about trusting the scheme and what he's calling."

Naturally, some of Chaney's calls raise a few eyebrows in the Vol huddle. The calls work more often than not, however, and that's what matters.

"We're perfectly fine with whatever he calls," Poole said. "He's the offensive coordinator, and there's nothing we can change, so we do the best we can and trust that the plays are going to work if we run 'em the way he tells us to."

Tennessee's coaches place so much emphasis on third-down execution that they devote one practice to it each week.

"Wednesday is always dedicated to third downs," sophomore offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We really weren't focused on third downs last year, even though the coaches were stressing it. But you can tell that everybody has matured in our offense this past year and we take it to heart working third downs on Wednesdays."

No one takes third down to heart more than Rivera. The Vols' first-team tight end knows there's a good chance the ball will come his way in those situations.

"Personally, I know third down is my biggest down," he said. "If I can catch a third-down ball, that gives us four more plays to make something happen in the game. I think everybody has bought into the third-down scheme. We're all thinking, 'Let's just get these chains moving.'"

One month into the 2011 season no team in college football has been better at keeping the chains moving than Tennessee. Naturally, head coach Derek Dooley hopes the third-down success continues.

"It's the three components," he said. "It starts with protection because you get a lot of junk stuff on third down. The receivers have to be running fast and where they're supposed to be, and the quarterback's got to make an accurate throw.

"So far, we've been pretty good at that. Our tests will get tougher week to week, so we'll see where we are at the end of the year."

Third-down conversions

2011 2010
10 of 17 vs. Montana 5 of 15 vs. UT Martin
10 of 13 vs. Cincin 2 of 15 vs. Oregon
4 of 12 vs. Florida 2 of 13 vs. Florida
12 of 16 vs. Buff 2 of 15 vs. UAB

36 of 58 (62.1 percent) 11 of 58 (18.9 percent)

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