KNOXVILLE — With do-it-all junior running back John Kelly catching or carrying the football an average of 22 times per game this season for Tennessee, opportunities for freshman Ty Chandler were not guaranteed in the Volunteers' first seven games.
Chandler returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown against Indiana State in the second game, and he had nine touches for 61 yards against Florida the next week. Five weeks later at Alabama, his workload bottomed out at four carries for 2 yards.
But there was no frustration shown by Chandler, who ran for more than 7,000 yards in his prep career at Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy.
"I just knew my time would come," he said.
It arrived even sooner than expected when coach Butch Jones announced last week that Kelly would be suspended for Tennessee's game against Kentucky.
"I just knew I had to step up," Chandler said. "I just knew I had an opportunity in front of me, and I wanted to take full advantage of it."
Chandler rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, but his biggest run in last Saturday's 29-26 loss to the Wildcats did not appear in the box score. On Tennessee's first play of its second possession, Chandler ran 80 yards — appearing to end the team's streak of three games without an offensive touchdown — only to have the play called back because of a holding penalty against receiver Josh Smith.
After the game, Tennessee players said they have seen those highlight plays from Chandler in practice and were not surprised to see him thrive on the game stage. But Chandler's performance did convince first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott the rookie deserves more touches during the final third of Tennessee's schedule.
The Vols (3-5) host Southern Mississippi (5-3) for homecoming Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. Jones has cleared Kelly to return, but Chandler's breakout game appears to have earned him an increased role nonetheless.
"My God, yes. You have to," Scott said. "That guy, the explosive nature that he brings to the offense, he's one of those guys that you hope to continue to put as many as you can in your program. They're called erasers. Even when some things are bad, they're able to erase not-so-perfect situations.
"In football, you want to have as many of those guys as you can get, especially offensively."
Scott said the game is "starting to slow down a little bit" for Chandler, who arrived on campus in the summer and has added 15 pounds to his 5-foot-11 frame without compromising the speed that also made him one of the state's best high school sprinters.
Chandler's added muscle showed when he bulldozed Kentucky cornerback Chris Westry while gaining 29 yards on a first-quarter run and again when he charged through the defensive line on a pair of short touchdown runs. The first one — midway through the second quarter — finally ended the touchdown drought for Tennessee's offense.
Chandler agreed with Scott's assessment about the adjustment to playing in the Southeastern Conference. Asked what the biggest surprise of college football has been, Chandler repeated the question.
"Biggest surprise of college football," he said, pausing for a moment to ponder his answer. "Probably just the pace of the game. It's more of a fast pace. It's just something you have to adjust to. But once you adjust to it, it makes the game a lot easier, just being out there on the field and slow things down and see it as it comes."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.
This story was updated Nov. 2 at 11:59 p.m.