Third-down success

For three weeks Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney fielded questions about the Vols' third-down efficiency and sighed.

Now he's fielding them and nearly breaking into song.

"Yeah, let's talk about third down!" he said recently, grinning and pumping his fist emphatically.

Chaney's enthusiasm is easily explained. The Vols converted 7 of 15 third-down tries in Game 5 at LSU and 6 of 13 in Game 6 at Georgia. That's a combined 13 of 28, which equates to a sterling 46.4-percent success rate.

By comparison, the Vols converted just 2 of 15 in Game 2 vs. Oregon, 2 of 13 in Game 3 vs. Florida and 2 of 15 in Game 4 vs. UAB. That was a combined 6 of 43, which computes to a putrid 13.9-percent success rate.

Interestingly enough, the dramatic upsurge in Tennessee's third-down efficiency coincided with the return of senior wideout Gerald Jones from a hand injury.

"It's been good having Gerald back," Chaney said. "Gerald makes a world of difference on those third-down situations - a senior with experience, your go-to guy. He's made a lot of plays for us. That certainly helps."

Jones has caught just six passes for 49 yards the past two games but three of his catches produced third-down conversions. More importantly, his presence in the lineup opened things up for the other receivers - much as the return of A.J. Green has opened things up for Georgia's receivers in recent weeks.

"Certainly," Chaney said. "There's no question about it. It helps when he's there."

During that three-game stretch when Tennessee was utterly inept on third-down, the Vols almost seemed to expect failure. Conversely, after experiencing some success at LSU, they seemed to expect more success at Georgia. There appeared to be a newfound confidence.

"I think so," Chaney said. "Any time you're having success in anything it builds. It's better than not having success. If the question were reversed - if you're not having success - do you feel comfortable with it? No, you're not.

"Our guys have had measured success the last couple of games on third down but they're still leaving some out on the field, so we want to continue to improve our execution."

Asked if the third-down woes of Games 2, 3 and 4 became a mental burden, Chaney laughed.

"It did with you guys," he said, referring to the media. "You guys were worried about it. We weren't comfortable with where we were at, either. We weren't doing a very good job, so you go out and you work on it.

"It's like any other job: When you're struggling with whatever labors you're doing, you identify the problem and try to solve it. As coaches, we try to do the same thing. The problem was third down, so we tried to go solve it."

No Vol is happier to see Tennessee's third-down efficiency on the rise than junior quarterback Matt Simms.

"We just kind of got that monkey off our backs, I guess," he said. "We kept focusing on it in practice. Really, third down is one of those things where one guy just needs to make a play and it follows from there, then continues to grow. Having Gerald back was huge, giving us another option on third downs.

"Now we've just got to continue to improve on it."

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