Tennessee’s unquestioned leader of the running back room heading into the 2019 season is junior Ty Chandler.
The versatile running back led Tennessee in rushing last season with 630 yards on 115 carries. Chandler scored a team-high seven touchdowns — four of which were on the ground and three came through the air.
Chandler is one of the most effective players in the SEC. The junior’s speed and versatility are what allow for him to be so effective. If Tennessee can simply get the ball in his hands either as a runner or a pass-catcher, his speed takes over. Make one person miss, and he’s gone. That was proven last year, but the 4.3-second 40-yard dash he ran over the summer this year gives even more credence to that.
What Tennessee running backs coach David Johnson has been emphasizing with Chandler, however, is finishing his runs.
“We don’t want to run out of bounds or anything like that, and he’s been taking coaching really good,” Johnson said during a media availability last Thursday. “He understands that part of it. But I’ve been telling him to finish and secure the ball.
“Every day you’re going to hear me screaming and yelling about, make sure we have our wrists above our elbow. That’s important for us to secure the football.”
Along with finishing runs and making sure the ball is secure, Johnson has also been emphasizing eye placement with not only Chandler, but the entire running back room.
Tennessee’s running backs finished last in the SEC in rushing last year in large part because of yards that were left on the field. Too many times the backs missed a hole or danced with a defender rather than simply getting upfield.
According to Johnson, Chandler and fellow junior running back Tim Jordan have done a really good job with where they place their eyes and where they pick up their read keys — due in large part to new Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“He’s (Chaney) come in with his offense,” Johnson said. “He has a serious plan about what he wants to do and how he wants to go about it, and he’s really big on the running backs, on their eyes — where they’re looking at and different things like that.”
While Chandler figures to be an improved back in Chaney’s offense, he’s also expected to play a big role in the passing game.
In 2018, Chandler ranked fourth on the team in catches (19) and receiving yards (183). He became the first Tennessee running back in program history to catch a touchdown in three-straight games. The only problem is that almost all of his production came during that three-game stretch against Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama. Chandler caught seven passes for 29 yards against South Carolina, but he failed to bring in a reception in the other seven games he played.
The Vols will look to make Chandler more of a focal point of the passing game in 2019, and Chandler has been working on that part of his game quite a bit.
“He’s been working on it all season,” Johnson said. “He’s been in that indoor (facility) on the JUGS machine daily all through spring, because that’s one of the things that he has to improve on. If we can get the ball in his hand in space, he’s real explosive.”
Johnson starred at Nicholls State in 1992-93, where he earned All-Southland Conference honorable mention after leading the Colonels in receiving during both seasons. At Memphis in 2016-17, he helped Anthony Miller develop into a first-round NFL Draft pick after he started his career as a walk-on. In his first year at Tennessee, he helped develop Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer into more consistent playmakers.
Johnson’s pedigree at the wide receiver position figures to help Chandler be as big of a weapon as a pass-catcher out of the backfield this fall.
“He wants to learn kind of more about routes and being split out a little bit in empty (backfield sets), so I’ve been helping him with that,” Johnson explained. “I think the biggest thing is his footwork and kind of understanding how to come off the ball, being explosive, cutting down on a lot of patting his feet — two steps in, two steps out.”
In his career, Chandler has 29 receptions for 291 yards and three scores in 23 games, giving him a 10.0 yard per catch average. He’s also averaging 5.0 yards a carry in his UT career, meaning he’s averaging a strong 5.7 yards per touch on offense.
With kickoff against Georgia State just 12 days away, Johnson’s running back room appears poised for a big year. Should the offensive line prove to be improved, his unit won’t be finishing last in the SEC in rushing this season, and Chandler will have a big say in that.