KNOXVILLE – Twelve to 14 seconds. It’s barely enough time to reach down and tie a pair of shoes.
But that’s how long Tennessee has after a play ends to call another one, get up to the line of scrimmage and get another snap off. At least that’s the frenzied pace new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian would ideally like his offense to work at when he decides to put the pedal down.
Going fast isn’t new to the returning players who played under former head coach Derek Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in 2012, though. Dooley, with a talented offense at his disposal last season, decided to change his philosophy and utilize a no-huddle, fast-paced attack.
Though it didn’t reflect in the win column, the move paid off for the offense. The Vols finished in the top 20 nationally in total offense and second in the SEC to only offensive juggernaut Texas A&M. But how will Bajakian’s pace compare to what the Vols did in 2012?
“I think we’ve amped it up a little bit from last year,” said quarterback Justin Worley, who has handled a majority of the first-team reps in fall camp. “[The new staff] comes in with a different teaching style and different ways to accelerate the offensive pace. We’ve grasped it pretty well and it’s been going pretty smoothly so far.”
“I think it has been faster, I feel like just from practice I can tell it is,” added tight end Brendan Downs. “Everything goes at a little faster pace.”
Statistically speaking, that seems to not be the case. Last year’s Cincinnati squad, led by Jones and Bajakian, averaged 66.4 plays per game. An impressive number, but well behind UT’s average of 74.2 plays per game under Dooley and Chaney.
Furthermore, Bajakian was not named one of the top 25 fastest play-callers in college football in a recent study that followed all primary play-callers over the past two seasons.
Numbers can deceive, though. Game circumstances must be considered. And with Tennessee struggling to stop anything defensively last year, the offense regularly played from behind. The Vols faced multi-score deficits in six contests last year on their way to seven losses. Cincinnati, meanwhile, won 10 games, and never saw a deficit of more than two scores.
The more deficits a team faces, the more urgency there will be over the course of a season to get plays off. Leads offer opportunities to slow the pace and let the clock tick away.
In short, Bajakian loves to go fast, but not at the expense of playing situationally-smart football. That’s why he’s not primarily concerned about being near the top nationally in plays run or any other offensive category.
“Last season we had 10 wins, the season before we had 10 wins,” Bajakian said. “We were in a situation quite often where we were purposefully slowing it down. I am not big into rankings and those types of statistics – I am big into execution and making sure we do what is necessary to win the game."
Teaching his offense to go fast has still been a priority this fall, even if the hyper-speed offense won’t always be in effect. Bajakian, despite mentioning that the pace is never quite what he wants to see, has seen signs of a unit that is adapting to his expectations.
“We have a tempo where we go as fast as we can and if we can snap the ball in 12 to 14 seconds, that’s great,” he said. “We did that multiple snaps in a row in that 14-play drive [in UT’s first scrimmage of the fall].”
“You just have to take control of the team and be able to manage the game and situations you’re in,” he said.
That challenge is magnified with limited experience returning at quarterback and some of the skill positions. Worley, the only quarterback on the roster who has appeared in a game, said the accelerated pace can be daunting for a signal caller.
Jones also regularly refers to center James Stone as “the gas pedal” who makes the offense go. Stone must quickly locate the ball and get the offense lined up around it. It’s a team process, and, in part thanks to the 2012 experience, it’s a transition that should go smoothly.
And whether or not the Vols actually get more snaps off in 2013 as compared to 2012 may not be the best indicator of how successful this fast-paced offense is. Attitude and – more importantly – wins will ultimately be the best gauge of Bajakian’s first group at Tennessee.
“We wanted to play fast last year and we want to play fast this year, but the main difference this year is we just want to play relentless,” Downs added. “We don’t want to get tired. We want to be play-to-play, going fast and going 100-percent every play.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga