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Tennessee’s Chess Game Mentality Will Prove Beneficial in 2022

Tennessee Football
Tennessee OC Alex Golesh (left) and head coach Josh Heupel (right). Photo via Tennessee Atletics

The game of football is an aggressive, physical, fast-paced sport that is played on turf or grass. Yet, at the same time, it’s an epic year-long chess match between individuals that don’t take a single step between the in-game lines.

With a year of tape in the books on what this Tennessee team in the Josh Heupel era looks like, the Vols’ coaching staff is fully aware of the next task of evolving all three phases of the game. And for Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, that’s where a lot of his attention was in the spring.

In the game of chess, moves are often visualized several turns in advance, as both players try to formulate a series of predictions and guesses about how the game is going to play out. A high-level chess player is always going to be thinking turns ahead as they try to outsmart their opponent.

Similar to football, coaches are always trying to figure out what moves the other team is going to put on the board, or the field in this case, and how they are going to set their pieces in the future as well.

“In a lot of ways, that’s what I spent all spring doing,” Golesh said on Tuesday. “Man, we hurt them here. They’re going to take that away. What’s the next counterpunch to that?”

Tennessee was excellent in their first drive or two on offense last season. However, coaches have now had an entire offseason to study the film and try to pinpoint how the Tennessee offense operates in certain scenarios. As Golesh said on Tuesday, he is working to visualize those moves in advance. If Tennessee scores on an 80-yard throw and catch to JaVonta Payton, Golesh is already thinking about how the opposing team might be reacting and then planning in advance how to topple that move as well.

Ultimately, in a lot of ways, both football and chess are about anticipating people’s responses.

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“You’ve got to anticipate answers to people’s answers,” Golesh said on Tuesday. “I think a lot of the time you first play a team, if you’re referring to specifically the tempo, just like you saw a year ago, teams settle in. Players settle in. I think it’s really hard to replicate in practice so people tend to settle in, you get to the second or third quarter, and people are used to it. Play callers on the other side of the ball figure out what they can and can’t get in at the tempo. So you’ve got to have answers.”

While he wasn’t too keen on sharing everything that had been thought of behind closed doors over the offseason, Golesh did say that Tennessee was evolving and learning how to have specific answers in specific situations.

“For us, that’s a multitude of different things,” Golesh said. “I don’t want to share it, but we have answers to replicate tempo. Answers to how they answer it.”

Whether the 2022 offense is more productive than the 2021 offense is still to be seen. Although, with all the prep work that went into the offseason, Tennessee is certainly well prepared for the chess match that is to come with the season.

“There was no secret coming in,” Golesh said on Tuesday. “A year ago, we came in from a place where the system, from a tempo standpoint, from a spacing standpoint, similar. We’ve grown and evolved in a lot of ways. You saw a year ago, as the year went, we have grown and evolved. In terms of how we get the ball out, formationally we have expanded, we’ve got to continue to expand formationally. Whether it’s motion or disguising pictures offensively, we’ve continued to grow. We’re drastically different today than we were two years ago leaving the previous place. We’re drastically different today than we were leaving in Nashville.”

Tennessee will open the 2022 season against Ball State on Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7:00 p.m. ET.

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