The Tennessee offense has had its struggles and has taken on a great deal of criticism for a lack of creativity.
Offensive coordinators know all too well that in the Southeastern Conference, if you are not evolving in the right direction, the speed and physicality of the defenses will punish you.
Pundits have expressed their concerns about Butch Jones' offense lacking a willingness to evolve away from being zone-read based, complaining that the runner is not allowed to get downhill.
Against Tennessee Tech, the Vols were determined to show another look.
From the first snap Saturday, the Vols showed that they were going to allow first-time starter John Kelly to get a head of steam out of a seldom-used formation — the pistol.
Kelly rushed straight ahead for 9 yards on his first attempt, 73 yards on his second and 12 on his third.
Kelly fits the pistol-based mold perfectly and Vols coaches got the football in the sophomore's belly with his pads squared up to the line of scrimmage and a head of steam.
Another thing pundits have suggested Jones and coordinator Mike DeBord need to implement into their offensive scheme is finding a way to incorporate a lead blocker for backs when they do get their pads heading downhill. The problem is the Team 120 roster doesn't have a fullback. However, the pistol formation allowed DeBord to make that happen on homecoming.
The 73-yard house call by Kelly was the longest run from scrimmage in the Butch Jones era. Kelly got to the second level of the Tennessee Tech defense nearly at top gear after tight end Ethan Wolf led the way through the crease. The 5-foot-9, 212-pound Kelly is a perfect fit to be used as a change-up from the traditional set, which centers around the zone read with backs lining up directly beside the quarterback.
What once appeared to be a gimme three-game set to finish this season now appears to be anything but. The Vols better be well prepared and ready to execute a gameplan that doesn't allow opponents to know what is coming. The Vols got a shot in the arm courtesy the 31-10 Arkansas win over East leader Florida earlier Saturday. All of sudden Tennessee looks like it has a realistic shot at playing in Atlanta on Dec. 3.
The Vols gave Kelly the ball for five of his seven carries from the pistol formation and the wrinkle looks to be one that the Kentucky Wildcats better take seriously. Even after back-up Carlin Fils-Aime entered the game, the pistol was still utilized.
Tennessee fans have begged for imagination to be infused into this Tennessee offense and the extensive use of pistol in the 55-point blanking of the Eagles shows a positive step in the right direction. DeBord could easily use play-action pass out of this formation and with Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings being proven, big-play threats. The mid-state products combined for three TDs against Tech and this might be another way to get them the ball in play-making situations.
One thing is certain about this newfound strategy, the Vols have a running back that is able to take advantage of it and turn it into big plays. That's something that had been lacking.