Football plays out in a thoughtful manner for someone like Tennessee’s Ryan Johnson, who isn’t just anyone in this regard.
As a grade schooler, the Vols’ offensive lineman built a remote-control boat by cobbling together two vacuum cleaner motors. He was reading a college-level physics book in middle school and learned to play guitar in high school.
The redshirt junior already has earned a degree in civil engineering and is pursuing a master’s degree in structural engineering.
No wonder then that he favors a cerebral description of the game.
“It’s a chess game to me, it really is,” he said at this point last year.
Since then, Jim Chaney has walked into his world and Johnson is beside himself over the UT offensive coordinator’s knowledge and experience.
“As an offensive coordinator, I mean, he’s brilliant,” Johnson said, “he really is and it’s just amazing to go into a meeting every day and just listen to him.”
Johnson told a story last week during a media availability session involving chess to illustrate Chaney’s mind at work. Johnson referenced the headmaster at his high school, Brentwood Academy in suburban Nashville, who apparently is quite the chess master. Johnson has the losses to prove it.
“I’ve played him 150 times and I’ve never been able to beat him,” Johnson said. “I came close to a draw one time. I’m playing him and I made this move that I thought about for 30 minutes. We were playing on our phones back and forth and I made this move and I was thinking in seven moves, I’ll have a draw.
“He texted me saying that was a great move but you’re thinking seven moves ahead and I’m thinking 10. And that’s Coach Chaney. It’s a long, drawn-out way to explain that, but he’s thinking 10 moves ahead.
Your move coach.
So far Chaney has been pretty deft at staying ahead of attempts to crown him as an offensive genius. He joked last spring that his honeymoon with the fans will last as long as his first bad play call.
Earlier this month, before preseason practice began, he was adamant that his game plans could not cover for any deficiencies on the part Johnson and his fellow linemen.
Chaney even fended off some bold statements by his boss, head coach Jeremy Pruitt, who said in his preseason press conference that Chaney is “really really smart” and captivating to the players and fellow offensive staffers in meetings.
“The guys just seems to get better every year,” Pruitt said.
When the latter compliment was related to Chaney, he didn’t take 30 minutes to consider his response. Heck, he didn’t need 30 seconds.
“My wife would disagree with that,” he said.
Chaney believes that his play calls are dependent upon the quarterbacks not only being in lockstep with his thinking but also capable and confident enough to be independent thinkers when necessary. Therefore, starter Jarrett Guarantano will have as much freedom at the line of scrimmage as he can handle.
“As a play caller, you can sit there and be right about 60 percent of the time,” Chaney said. “Somebody’s got to get you right that other 40 percent or you’re living in a bad situation. The expectation for him is to get me out of my horrible calls to some good calls.”
Sooner or later, it will be the quarterback’s move and the objective will be more ambitious than a draw.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com