KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — If healthy, the Tennessee running back room could be a strength on offense, but they don’t have a ton of depth when it comes to guys with experience. Let’s take a deep dive into the Vols backfield.
Small took over as the starter in 2021 after Tiyon Evans left the team. He was banged up quite a bit, but when he was on the field, he was effective. Small finished with 796 yards rushing with nine touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Small added 15 lbs. of muscle to his frame in the off-season and feels like he has what it takes to carry a bigger load in 2022. He also feels like he can handle 20-25 carries per game.
What running back coach Jerry Mack said about Small:
“One thing about Jabari is that he’s done a great job; he’s added armor to his body. You look at the last game of the season, he weighed in around 199 lbs. This year he’s been weighing in consistently between 212-215 lbs, and that is going to help him down the road. As we get into games down the stretch, like being able to finish games is what we’ve been talking about. So, the added weight should help him a ton to try to increase his carries. That’s one of the things we’ve been really focusing on with him in the offseason, and obviously in fall camp, just trying to make sure you understand how to finish the practice.
The added strength is the arm tackles. Last year, you talk about the shoestring tackles, you talk about, from a defensive lineman, maybe getting a pad on a running back as he comes through the line of scrimmage. Those plays have been able to now be extended because Jabari has that added weight. You can see the different mentality. One thing about weight and strength is it changes your mindset as well. So, when you talk about down there in the red zone, short yardage, he just has a different mentality about how he’s going to go ahead and get that first down and go pad – and we talk about pad plus too – all those different things, the mindset has really changed for him with that added weight. Protection-wise, you can see him now sticking his face on people. You know, we’re doing protection about two or three days out of the week because coach Heup (Heupel), coach Golesh and myself, we all want to make an emphasis of that going into the season. And now you can see he’s not scared of that contact, he wants to get his face in the fan, he wants to get in that contact.
I think he saw what he needed to do to get better as a player. Obviously, our strength and conditioning staff and our nutritionist saw things that he could improve in with his eating habits and his weight room habits, so I think it was a mutual feeling. I mean, Jabari knew that he should’ve been a 1,000-yard back at the end of the year last year. He would’ve been able to play in all those games and do what he’s supposed to do. There’s no reason that he couldn’t be one of the elite players in the SEC, but he knew he was going to have to get better. One of the things that you talk to the guys about at the end of the spring or at the end of the season is, ‘What do I need to do in the offseason to get better?’ and that was the primary thing for him. The second, probably making sure that from a protection standpoint he got in the film room and understood what we were trying to do in each protection.”
As a true freshman, Wright stepped into a significant role in the offense when Tiyon Evans left the team. He was solid, rushing for 409 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Wright is an athletic freak and was ranked No. 24 in Bruce Feldman’s College Football Freaks List 2022 in the Athletic. Wright was clocked at 23.6 miles per hour, according to Feldman, and is up to 200 lbs. He’s been banged up to start camp but is expected to be ready for the start of the season.
What Mack said about Wright:
“When you talk about Jaylen Wright, progressing every day. Like, every day he gets a little bit better from a standpoint of he’s able to do more. Today he’s able to do a little bit more than he was a couple of days ago. So, I think I feel confident in saying that he’ll be ready by the time we enter the first game. You know, it’s a process with him and he’s going through every phase a little bit more.
One thing we made an emphasis on is him running behind his pads, being more physical, and having the ability to reduce. That means having the ability to get your pads down, play behind your pads and then still go forward even after contact. So, it’s something that we’re always looking at in the room. We’re always charting, our many graduate assistants, our quality control people, we’re always charting exactly how many yards these guys are getting after contact.”
Williams-Thomas is a freshman who enrolled early at Tennessee to participate in spring ball. At 6’0 and 210 lbs, he has a great combination of size and speed. He was a four-star recruit from East Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga. Williams-Thomas finished his senior season with 1,896 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
What Mack said about Williams-Thomas:
“Well, the third block for him was probably his best set of practices since he’s been here. I mean, from a standpoint of him running with more confidence, we saw flashes of the Justin we saw in high school. We saw him have an explosive play in the scrimmage the other day. We saw him being able to catch the ball out of the backfield a little bit today in practice, doing some things like that. I think where he has to get better is, where all young guys usually have to get better, and that’s pass protection. More so than technique, I think we’ve done a good job of him understanding, at a minimum, where his eyes belong. He was here in the spring, so he had an opportunity to go through some of that spring, summer camp as well, and now into fall camp. I don’t have an issue of him knowing who to block, now, it’s just about the mannerism and about how to actually get there. I think that’s the biggest thing for him right now, to continue to work on his technique. We talk about hands inside, squeezing the elbows tight and keeping our butts to the quarterback. All those little things, that they probably don’t talk to you as much [about] in high school because he was mainly the primary runner, is things he has to learn how to do playing without the ball. It’s going to be really important for him.”
Dylan Sampson is a true freshman from Dutchtown High School in Baton Rouge, La. At 5’11 and 190 lbs, he has enough size to be effective but his game is all about speed. Sampson has the ability to be a home run hitter and a big play machine. He was a three-star recruit coming out of high school. He broke Eddie Lacy’s Dutchtown High School record for all-time rushing yards with 4,927 yards.
What Mack said about Sampson:
“He’s done a great job. He’s kind of a fan favorite right now in the building with his attitude, personality, which we knew when we recruited him. Every day he comes out there, it seems like he does something really good with the ball in his hands. Explosive plays. We talked about him being a guy that was going to have those sexy runs, those long, explosive runs and he’s held true to form. He’s that guy that every day in practice, he’s been coming out there and he finds a way to get through those small creases. You know, he’s a smaller back but he gets to top-end speed really fast. We’ve been really impressed with his natural vision and his natural patience as a runner. Obviously, the thing that he has to continue to grow in more than anything else is that physicality part of it and that’s going to come as he gets into games more, as he gets into practice and those live reps more. I like the way Dylan’s operating in our offense as well. He’s playing with that sense of urgency that we need in our offense because we play so fast.”