The Vols' top two tailbacks in Friday's opener versus North Carolina State were two guys with sub-4.4 speed over 40 yards — Rajion Neal (4.36) and Devrin Young (4.38). The top three wideouts were guys with 40 clockings of 4.5 or better — Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers.
The Wolfpack managed to contain Neal and Young but the speed of Patterson (41-yard touchdown catch, 67-yard TD on an end-around) and Rogers (72-yard scoring grab) spurred the Vols to a 35-21 victory.
As Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley astutely noted: "Ours were really huge plays."
Neal agreed wholeheartedly.
"Speed kills, and speed is a great thing to have when you're playing good teams and free-flowing teams like we play," he said. "We try to use that to our advantage. Sometimes it gets the best of us because we're always looking for the home-run play. But it's good to have speed, and those guys used it at the correct times."
Tennessee had minimal speed in 2011, especially after Hunter went down with a Game 3 knee injury. The addition of junior college transfer Patterson — along with the emergence of Neal, Young and Rogers — has upgraded the Vols' team speed dramatically.
"One thing different from last year is that we have way more people that are running super fast," tailback Marlin Lane said. "They're feeling confident with it, so they can trust their speed in doing their job."
Tennessee's lack of speed last fall allowed opposing defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage and stop the run. Hunter, Patterson and Rogers have the speed to shred that strategy this fall.
"With them on the perimeter it opens up the run game a lot," Lane said. "With their speed, you won't be playing man on them all the time, so they're going to stay in zone."
Senior fullback Ben Bartholomew said the big-play dimension Tennessee exhibited in Game 1 was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
"I think we have the potential for much more explosive plays this season," he said. "It's going to be a great season. A lot of people showed their speed. We've got some really good playmakers in open space."
In addition to quicker athletes, Tennessee is playing a quicker tempo this season. The hurry-up style sometimes enables quarterback Tyler Bray to initiate a play before the defense is totally set.
"We had a big philosophical change about January and February," Dooley recalled. "It was for a lot of reasons. I think it helps Tyler. It certainly helps the run game. You saw that in the second half, when we really started knocking 'em."
The brisk pace, coupled with faster athletes, enabled the Vols to create and exploit mismatches against North Carolina State's defense.
"I think it's a combination of the speed you have and also how it affects the defense," Dooley said. "If you can get in a groove where you're getting some first downs the pace really helps you.... You just get 'em (defenders) out of position, get 'em a half-count late. That's why all of these teams are doing this stuff."
Tennessee's newfound team speed provides a big-play dimension the Vols were seriously lacking last season. This quick-strike ability also makes the game more fun.
"Oh, man, it excites everybody," Neal said. "We're such a close-knit group that when one man scores we feel like we all have. It's exciting to see these guys get in the end zone, have a good time and help this team."
Bartholomew agreed, noting: "It's definitely an energizer on the sideline for the whole team. Big plays and big hits are always energizers. We thrive off of that. Hopefully, we can continue to make those plays throughout the season."
As uplifting as a big play is for the offense, it can be even more deflating for the opposing defense.
"Definitely," Neal said. "When Prentiss (Wagner) has a turnover like that (interception) and the next play we score, it hurts, man. It kills you."
Bartholomew also believes that a big play takes the air right out of opposing defenders.
"Yeah," he said. "I hope we can beat down defenses and put 'em down after big plays like that."
Hear more from Bartholomew in the video below from InsideTennessee: