Vols hoping up-tempo offense can stun one final foe this year

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior offensive lineman Jerome Carvin (75) celebrates a touchdown during the 45-20 win over South Carolina with tight end Jacob Warren (87) and receiver JaVonta Payton (3).

In Tennessee's first offensive possession of the 2021 season, the Volunteers marched 66 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown, with the drive against Bowling Green requiring just two minutes and 59 seconds.

The Vols erupted for 28-point first quarters against Missouri and South Carolina, and they needed 37 seconds to collect two early touchdowns at Kentucky. Tennessee led both Alabama and Georgia - half of this year's College Football Playoff field - after the first 15 minutes, reflecting a shock element that foes repeatedly endured when facing Josh Heupel's hurried pace out of the gate.

Purdue is the opponent in Thursday afternoon's Music City Bowl, and the Vols are hoping to show the Boilermakers a frenetic attack they've never experienced before.

"I don't think they have," Vols senior left guard Jerome Carvin told reporters following Tuesday afternoon's practice at Vanderbilt. "Just seeing the opponents they've played, they really just huddle up and slow the pace down. They're going to face some challenges with our up-tempo offense."

The Vols will enter the game at Nissan Stadium leading the nation in plays (2.94) and points (1.61) per minute. They have outscored opponents 169-44 during the first quarter, which roughly equates to a 14-3 lead in each game.

"We've just been locked in from the jump," fifth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker said. "We've been coming out and attacking early, and that's what we push for. Coming out with an early jump and keeping it going throughout the game is the ideal thing to do."

It's been more than a month since the Vols capped their 7-5 regular season with a 45-21 thumping of Vanderbilt, so this is easily the longest layoff since the season kicked off Sept. 2. Tennessee's only open date of the regular season was followed by the quick start and ultimate victory at Kentucky in early November.

Tennessee's offense was actually held scoreless against the Commodores in the first quarter, with Theo Jackson's pick six accounting for the only score, but the Vols are not expecting any rust against the Boilermakers.

"We've been preparing the last three weeks and doing the same routine that we've been doing," sophomore running back Jabari Small said. "We've just got to refocus and reboot. I think it will be a fun game."

Said Hooker: "We're looking good. Everyone is flowing smoothly."

Still persuading

Carvin, who has started at both left guard and center this season, quietly decided after the Vanderbilt game to use the NCAA's extra year of eligibility that resulted from the coronavirus outbreak and return in 2022 as a fifth-year senior. The Vols also have center Cooper Mays, left tackle Darnell Wright and right guard Javontez Spraggins expected to return, and they could make it a sweep if right tackle Cade Mays used the extra year as well.

"We're still in Cade's ear," Carvin said with a smile. "It would be great for him to come back, but even having four of the five starters is key to the success of the offense as well."

Tillman's quest

Redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman's breakout year has left him 69 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season, something his quarterback knows about.

"He's only spoken to me about it one time," Hooker said. "If he gets it, he gets it. If not, then it's my fault, Ced."

Tillman would become Tennessee's first 1,000-yard receiver since Justin Hunter, who amassed 1,083 yards in 2012.

It was just last week that Tillman announced that he was coming back in 2022. When asked if Hooker's decision to return had an impact on his choice, Tillman said, "Honestly, yeah. I definitely took that into consideration."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected] or 423-757-6524.