Pivotal Player Edition: Ty Chandler
Chandler was a four-star running back when he came out of Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He was also the record holder for the state of Tennessee in the 100 meters. Expectations were, therefore, high for the coveted in-state prospect when he arrived on Rocky Top in 2017. Butch Jones has recruited multiple successful running backs while at Tennessee, and though his ability to develop or utilize them had been called into question, his ability to identify and recruit talent at the position was sound. The buzz around Chandler was serious when he arrived on campus, even though he was backing up incumbent star John Kelly.
As a true freshman, Chandler had an interesting ride. He was clearly a talented and dangerous player but carving out opportunities for touches proved difficult initially. Part of that was Jones and offensive coordinator Larry Scott failing to create any kind of role for Chandler, to run two back formations with he and Kelly on the field together, and their stubborn insistence to run Kelly almost into the ground. Kelly was a star for the Vols, but Chandler was too talented to languish away on the bench for a team that went 4-8 and needed offensive playmakers desperately. Chandler proved this when he was given chances to have a role, returning a kickoff for a touchdown early in the season against Indiana State and flashing his blistering speed on other plays early in the season. It was when Kelly was suspended for the Kentucky game that Chandler showed what he could do. In a road game in Lexington that the Vols had to have, Chandler was brilliant. He ran for 120 yards in his first career start, had long receptions, and had an eighty-yard touchdown run called back on an at-best questionable holding call. Tennessee lost that game in Lexington, but Chandler’s performance was spectacular. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms that Jones and Scott rightfully faced after that game was that they went away from Chandler late. That display against a solid Kentucky defense, where Chandler displayed speed, hands, and power, made Tennessee fans optimistic about Chandler’s ability to carry the load as the feature back in his sophomore year.
Chandler’s sophomore campaign brought new opportunities as well as a new head coach. Jeremy Pruitt took over at Tennessee, and he brought a change in philosophy. Pruitt wanted the Tennessee offense to rely on more power runs, going under center and running behind a fullback between the tackles. Chandler, who is not a large back, was questioned by some experts about his ability to hold up at his size in the new, power scheme. Those that watched Chandler in high school would have known that such questions were of little concern to Chandler, with the new scheme lining up closely with what he ran in so successfully in high school. In fact, Chandler showed early in the season that he was comfortable banging between the tackles at just over two hundred pounds. He showed good power when he ran, an ability to break tackles, and an excellent stiff arm on the edge. Another added bonus of Tennessee’s new scheme was that if Chandler got a seam on an interior iso play, he had the speed to hit the hole at full bore and break long touchdown runs. Chandler led the Vols in rushing in 2018 with 630 yards, and he was the first Tennessee back in over a decade to have two runs of seventy-five yards or more. Chandler’s problem wasn’t his size, it was an offensive line that was near the bottom in FBS at allowing running backs to be hit at or behind the line of scrimmage. Tennessee backs were met at or behind the line of scrimmage on nearly one-third of their carries in 2018, which makes what Chandler was able to accomplish even more impressive. Chandler led the Vols in 2018 with a total of seven touchdowns, but only four came on the ground.
Chandler contributed to the Tennessee offense significantly as a receiver out of the backfield, becoming the first Volunteer back to ever catch a touchdown in three straight games, with scores against Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama. Chandler ran good routes out of the backfield as a sophomore, using his excellent hands and speed to give the offense another playmaker and another dimension that defensive coordinators had to prepare for. Unfortunately, the struggles of the offensive line meant that Chandler was forced to stay in on pass protection far more often than the coaches would have liked, and that he was a safety valve, desperation receiver too often. Even screen passes to Chandler often suffered from not having to enough time to set up properly. When the offensive line did hold up long enough for Tennessee to design plays to Chandler as a true receiver, the impact was undeniable. There are precious few linebackers in even the SEC that can hope to cover Chandler in space, and if he is able to reel in a pass while in stride or in space, it often leads to points for Tennessee. Chandler is a complete back with multiple facets to his game. He does many things well, and he has done those things behind a pair of poor offensive lines. In 2019 the Vols look to lean on the rising junior heavily, as he, with all his skills, gives Tennessee a unique weapon if they can find a way to utilize him.
Enter new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Chaney knows all about using multi-faceted running backs to great effect, especially when he has other quality running backs to use with them. Chandler should enter the 2019 season as the feature back for the Vols, but Chaney likes to use multiple backs, almost a co-starter arrangement. Whether he is paired with Jeremy Banks, Tim Jordan, or Eric Gray, expect Chaney to utilize Chandler much like he used Sony Michel at Georgia over the last few seasons. Like Michel, Chandler is a complete back that can run inside, outside, from the I, or from the shotgun. He is also a superb receiver and a nightmare to account for on defense if the Vols have time to create plays for him. Chaney has proved to be a master of dictating and scheming those mismatches, whether through formations, shifts, play calling, or personnel groupings. That innovation and experience that Chaney brings means that if Tennessee’s offensive line can take a step forward, Chandler could become a weapon that the Vols can move all over the field. That said, more important than the addition of Chaney is the growth of the offensive line. Chandler has spent two seasons running behind offensive line groups that were just awful. There is no other way to put it. The Tennessee offensive line ranked near the bottom in almost every category in the FBS in 2018. If the line can even play at an average level this year, with a more talented but dramatically younger group, Chandler’s production could spike beyond what anyone is expecting.
Chandler has proven to be an explosive player for Tennessee while playing behind a line that went games without ever opening a proper hole for him. If the new additions to the line and the players returning from injury can raise the Tennessee line to even the middle of the pack, Chandler should see his production increase exponentially. One of the reasons that Ty Chandler is the starter for these Vols is that he possesses an ability that no other running back on the roster has. Most backs can turn a narrow seam into a seven to ten-yard gain, and a gaping hole into a twenty to thirty-yard gain. Chandler’s speed and acceleration, along with the fact that he is a north and south runner, mean that he can turn any kind of seam from his line or mistake from the defense into a touchdown from anywhere on the field. If the ball is in Ty Chandler’s hands, as a runner or receiver, he is a legitimate threat to score. He is one mistake, one missed tackle, one bad angle, from turning a standard play into a highlight-reel touchdown. That ability makes Chandler special on this Tennessee team, and if the offensive line can even be average, Chandler could allow the entire offense to overachieve, to produce even more with his playmaking ability and a play-caller that knows how to use him. Chandler is perhaps the single-player that can most change the complexion of this Tennessee offense, because an average improvement by his line could facilitate an explosive improvement in his numbers, which would change the way defenses approach the Vols, making play action a threat, and helping the protection of the offensive line and the efficacy of the passing game. Chandler also builds in mismatches in personnel groups, easy plays that the Vols can exploit for big gains if they are careful where they use them. It is hard to see Tennessee being successful with a struggling Chandler, but a breakout season for the junior likely means the Vols surprise a few teams. There may be no single player that more directly serves as a barometer for the success of Tennessee’s season than Ty Chandler.
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