KNOXVILLE — Tennessee right tackle Ja'Wuan James' face lit up with a little excitement at the mere mention of the Volunteers' newest offensive formation.
"It's fun," said the baby-faced sophomore. "I feel like we're playing a video game."
UT tinkered with Marlin Lane in the wildcat formation last week against Middle Tennessee State and saw enough success with the direct snap to the freshman tailback to keep it in the playbook moving forward. The Vols are 118th nationally out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and the wildcat is a next step in a search for more yards that continues Saturday at No. 8 Arkansas.
"I think we are reaching for anything," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Wednesday morning. "I think any type of creativity we can come up with could help benefit us that way. We thought it did a little bit, who knows how much we will get into it this week. We will always have a little package."
The Vols debuted the formation four times during the second half against the Blue Raiders and gained 18 yards for an average of 4.5 yards per carry. On the other 39 carries, UT's tailbacks collectively averaged less than three yards.
Quarterback Justin Worley splits out as a wide receiver when Lane lines up as the shotgun quarterback. Tailback/return specialist Devrin Young comes in motion before the snap. The play is in Lane's hands, as he makes a decision to hand it off or keep it and look for running room.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Lane was a quarterback as a freshman at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., and ran the wildcat as a junior and senior.
"I'm kind of used to it," he said. "I'm confident in running it. I think it can get the offense going and make more rushing yards. We're just going to put it in and see how it develops. We thought about [doing] it earlier [this season]. I guess they wanted to put in a new package, and we tried it this week. It's working, though. I like it."
The wildcat is the new-age recreation of the old single-wing offense, and UT saw plenty of it the last time it visited Arkansas in 2006, when tailback Darren McFadden ran for two touchdowns and threw another out of the formation in the Razorbacks' 31-14 win.
As simple as it appears to execute, the timing of the snap synchronized with the player in motion is crucial in its effectiveness. The center's snap is obviously important on every play, but a slightly errant delivery can throw off the whole play even more than it would to a normal quarterback.
"The snap has to be dead on," said center Alex Bullard, "or it's going to throw off the process of the play. That's just the biggest thing, and then communicating. My head is down, so I have to rely on on the other [offensive linemen] to tell me if the defense is moving around or anything like that."
After scoring four touchdowns in his first three collegiate games, Lane has been stuck in a rut as the physicality and grind of the season wears on him. He only played half his senior season in high school after recovering from a serious injury to his left knee, which has flared up and limited him in recent weeks. Excluding a six-carry, 43-yard performance that mostly came in garbage time against LSU, Lane entered last week averaging 2.6 yards per carry before running nine time for 37 yards.
He said reading defenses in the wildcat is different than taking a regular handoff.
"It gives you time enough to see how the defense is going to develop as the line is moving, other than just taking steps, getting the ball and going," he said. "It gives it much more time to develop the blocks and the holes."
UT coach Derek Dooley said he's always liked the wildcat, though it's nothing more than a changeup to give the defense a different look and something else for which to prepare.
"It was a good start," he said. "We'll keep playing with it. It's not going to solve our problems. I've always liked it, I have. I haven't run it here just because I haven't had a comfort level of the right guy running it. I think it's a good way to take a few plays off your quarterback.
"It helps, [but] it's rarely going to be the difference in winging and losing."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...