What is Georgia getting in Jim Chaney? For a deeper look, and an unvarnished view, we sought the opinion of beat writers who covered him at his most three recent stops: Pittsburgh, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Three questions were posed to each beat writer, all of whom offered some very in-depth responses, and keen insight. Thanks to them for their time, and hope you enjoy:
Jerry DiPaola, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
1. Pittsburgh’s numbers weren’t eye-popping this year, obviously, but how much of that had to do with running back James Conner’s absence, and how did Chaney do under the circumstances?
It’s too easy to use the loss of Conner as a crutch, but the rushing numbers did go down. Chaney had all season to adjust to the loss of the reigning ACC Player of the Year — he was hurt in the second quarter of the opener — and the offense never found a true identity. Yes, redshirt freshman running back Qadree Ollison vaulted from third string to ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year. But Chaney turned away from Ollison in the North Carolina game (10 carries, 54 yards and a TD) because, Chaney said, of Ollison’s struggles in pass protection. But in big late-season victories against Duke and Louisville, Ollison totaled 54 carries, 263 yards and two touchdowns.
The loss of Conner probably put more pressure on the passing game in terms of the way the defenses were leaning, and I thought the passing game never got off the ground (no pun intended) under Chaney. Much of that had to do with the lack of talent behind Tyler Boyd, but some of it, I thought, was due to Chaney keeping QB Nathan Peterman under wraps and not letting him throw downfield much until later in the season. Peterman, also inexperienced, was efficient, however, going nearly six consecutive games without an interception, and I think the offensive coordinator always should get credit for that stat. In fact, two of Peterman’s five interceptions (total) came in his first start in the first quarter at Iowa.
Chaney took a chance with Peterman — he brought him into the program because they were at Tennessee together — and lived and died with him. Mostly lived, but it wasn’t a very exciting life. If that sounds funny because the team won eight games, well, Pitt started off 6-1 against weak competition and was 2-3 down the stretch.
Pittsburgh’s offense, led by quarterback Nathan Peterman, ranks 95th nationally in passing yards this year, though 69th in scoring offense. (GETTY/JARED WICKERSHAM)
2. What kind of system did Chaney use this year, and how much of that was his philosophy, and how much was it adjusting to the talent he had?
Pitt’s system is to emphasize the running game, but Chaney always said (in the limited time we had to talk to him) that he would adjust to the talent on hand. What puzzled me about the season was how Boyd’s yards-per-catch average went down from 14.9 to 10.3 This was the only season of three that Boyd had fewer than 1,000 yards (873), but to be fair he also missed the opener against FCS Youngstown State because of a DUI and there is still one more game to go and I think he will tear up Navy. But Boyd had 85 receptions and the No. 2 WR (Dontez Ford) had 23. Ford had two or fewer catches in eight games, including in the game that Boyd didn’t play.
Under Chaney, the run game never supported the passing game enough, perhaps because Conner didn’t play and perhaps because the offensive line was unspectacular.
3. Finally, what was the perception of Pitt fans/media on Chaney, and what’s their feeling on losing him to Georgia?
I don’t think Pitt fans will lament the loss of Chaney, mainly because the offense didn’t do as well under him as it did under Paul Chryst in 2014. Chaney has a very engaging personality, but he wasn’t out front enough (probably by Narduzzi’s choice and Chaney’s choice). I’d like to know what Peterman and the quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class (Thomas MacVittie of Cincinnati) think about losing Chaney. Both chose Pitt because of him. Neither have been available for comment since Saturday.
Tom Murphy, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
1. What kind of stuff did Chaney do with his offense at Arkansas, schematically? And how much autonomy did he have over it?
Jim Chaney has been around long enough that he is armed with the full arsenal of blocking schemes, protections, formations, what have you. He’s seen it all and knows how to make adjustments. Bret Bielema certainly had a stake in formulating the offensive identity, and I think he felt more comfortable not taking a lot of chances with a sophomore QB in Brandon Allen in 2013 with young backs, limited talent at receiver and a youngish O-line. Chaney probably would have preferred to wing it around a little more in both ’13 and ’14. The Razorbacks were very good on third-down conversions in ’14, which showed the unit’s overall improvement and Allen’s progress.
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen against Georgia in 2014. (GETTY/WESLEY HITT).
2. What was the perception of how he did at Arkansas? And how close to reality do you think that was?
Some fans thought he was a little antsy to get fancy, with a halfback pass by Jonathan Williams that got blown up against either Ole Miss or Mississippi State in 2013 — when the Razorbacks were powering down the field on a drive — a prime example. I guess Bret Bielema felt he wanted to go in a different direction at coordinator for Brandon Allen’s progress this season, and it’s hard to argue the results. Allen was never critical of Chaney’s tutelage, but he frequently pointed out Enos’ common ground as a fellow quarterback. One of the biggest frustrations I heard was if the Hogs were built to be a hardcore, power-running team, then why were there so many short-yardage run failures? Ones that come quickly to mind: At the goal line vs. Auburn in 2013, in OT vs. Texas A&M in 2014, in the fourth quarter of the 14-13 loss to Alabama in 2014 — all fourth-and-1 plays — and again at the goal line in the 30-0 win over Ole Miss in ’14. Those reflect on Chaney and Sam Pittman.
3. How is the hire by Georgia being seen over there, particularly in conjunction with the hire of Sam Pittman?
Arkansas fans are not happy about losing Sam Pittman in the least and Bret Bielema is clearly not pleased with losing him to a conference opponent, even if the Hogs don’t play Georgia with any regularity. I think the view is there are other OCs comparable to Chaney, but there are few with Pittman’s blend of recruiting prowess, coaching skills and personal magnetism. When a man comes in after a long practice, kicks off his shoes in the interview room, plops in a chair and says what’s what in a slow Oklahoma drawl, there’s something appealing in that.
Wes Rucker, Vols247.com (and Chattanooga Times Free-Press during the Chaney years)
1. What was the overall feeling around Tennessee about Chaney’s tenure? And what was the reaction to his hiring by Georgia? Worry or no?
I’m not sure some Tennessee fans will ever fully embrace any offensive coordinator not named David Cutcliffe — which isn’t fair, but that’s life in the SEC — but I think most were fine with Chaney. There certainly were criticisms of his tenure, but overall the Vols scored a lot of points with him pulling the strings, and I think most people understand that. I think there are probably a fair number of Tennessee fans who hated to see him take the job in Athens, and I think there are probably some who were happy to see it. Overall, though, I think most were a bit saddened to hear the news, because even those who didn’t love Chaney as a coach loved him as a person. He’s just an incredibly likable person. He has practically no ego and is smart and self-deprecating and self-aware, and his personality flies in the face of every football coach cliche you’ve heard. He and his wife love to play board games in their free time. He can talk about anything, and he’s not afraid to tell you he made a mistake.
Let’s put it this way: I’ve covered Tennessee sports for all but two years since 2000, and Chaney would comfortably make any short list of the most enjoyable people to cover. His players love him, and the people of Athens will love him if they ever get to see his personality — but I guess that’s up to Kirby Smart, isn’t it?
Jim Chaney’s Tennessee offense had a big day against Georgia in 2012, but the Bulldogs won a 51-44 shootout. (AJC/BRANT SANDERLIN
2. What kind of schemes did he use there? We hear balance, fitting the talent a lot with him.
Obviously Georgia’s scheme will be dictated by Smart, but Chaney seems to prefer a version of the pro spread offense that probably looks a little like the schemes Mike Bobo used when things were going well for the Dawgs. He does indeed like versatility and balance, and his best players will get the most touches because he’ll find different ways to get them the ball. He can spread it and chuck-and-duck it, and he can go two-back and wham you. I really liked his offenses at Purdue and at Tennessee.
Tennessee didn’t have great records during the Chaney years, but that usually had little to do with the offense and much more to do with the defense. They put points on the board, and at times they were prolific, creative and fun to watch on that side of the ball. They just couldn’t get enough stops. Georgia fans will remember that from a couple of Vols-Dawgs games.
3. In a nutshell what were his strengths and weaknesses as a coordinator and play caller?
Chaney’s biggest strength, in my opinion, is his ability to be creative and unconventional in order to get his best players the ball. Maybe the best example I can give you is current Minnesota Vikings All-Pro Cordarrelle Patterson, who spent only one season at Tennessee before declaring for the draft but broke some records and was one of the most exciting players the program has had in the past decade. Patterson struggled then (and still does) with some of the finer points of the wide receiver position, and most coaches would drive themselves crazy trying to improve his route-running and timing and spacing and all that. Chaney did all those things, but he also wasn’t afraid to stop and basically say, “Why don’t we just hand the ball to him.” He used jet sweeps and reverses and even occasionally lined up Patterson and tailback and either handed or tossed him the ball. Problem solved. Points. This can be a simple game sometimes, and I think Chaney understands that.
The biggest weakness Chaney showed during his time at Tennessee — and it certainly was a problem at times — was his tendency to abandon the running game when it didn’t work well in the first few possessions. If you back Chaney into a corner, he’ll try to pass his way out of it. Perhaps that’ll be different when he has Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and guys like that in the backfield, but it’s certainly something I’ll be interested to see. That was the biggest reason I was so surprised to see Chaney take the job at Arkansas and why it didn’t at all surprise me when he left Fayetteville. Look at his past. Brees. Orton. Bray. All-conference receiver after all-conference receiver. He loves to throw the ball.
(For what it’s worth, you didn’t ask me about new Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman, but I’ll mention this, anyway: Pittman might be the best offensive line coach I’ve covered and is inarguably one of the best O-line coaches in the country. The Dawgs got a great one there. Great coach, and good person, too.)