Tennessee head football coach Josh Heupel is set to bring his fast-paced offense to Rocky Top this fall. And while the play of his quarterbacks will – deservedly – be at the front and center of everyone’s attention, Tennessee’s running backs will play a crucial role in keeping Heupel’s scheme balanced.
In Heupel’s offenses, the focus has almost entirely fallen on quarterback development, as names like Sam Bradford, Drew Lock and Landry Jones stand out among the most successful examples. Heupel did lead the Southeastern Conference in total yards twice at Missouri and ran a top-10 offense three years at UCF. While most of that success is due to the signal-callers, Heupel believes more credit should be given to his ground game.
“I think that's the misnomer about what we do offensively,” Heupel said Tuesday at SEC Media Days 2021. “You look at, when we were at Missouri, we set a Power Five record for the fewest amount of zero negative yard plays and then reset the record the following year. When we took over at Missouri, they were 125th in the country in total offense. We ended up leading the league for two straight years in total offense.
“We're very balanced in our approach. You look at our numbers, run and pass, we're extremely balanced.”
The Vols enter the 2021 season with a much murkier picture of the running back room than they had a year ago. In 2020, sophomore Eric Gray and senior Ty Chandler combined for 1,228 yards and eight touchdowns as Tennessee’s top-two backs. After Jeremy Pruitt’s firing in January, both Gray and Chandler entered the transfer portal – to Oklahoma and North Carolina, respectively – and Tennessee now finds itself forced to rely on several young, inexperienced tailbacks.
Sophomore Jabari Small is set to take the majority of the running back reps in Huepel’s first season. As the Vols’ third running back last season, Small totaled 117 yards on 26 carries. Though his longest rush of the year was only 17 yards, his 4.5 yards per carry was just under Chandler’s 4.6 and Gray’s 4.9.
The only other back on Tennessee’s roster with career rushing yards is redshirt freshman Dee Beckwith, who at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, made the transition last season from wide receiver to running back. Beckwith totaled just three carries for 25 yards, but did show off his physicality, running over multiple defenders in his two carries against Vanderbilt.
Though he is still learning the intricacies of the running back position, Beckwith’s sheer size alone could earn him a role in short yardage situations.
Tennessee has some interesting options at running back in its newcomers. Junior college transfer Tiyon Evans was a top prospect out of Hartsville High School in South Carolina. He signed with his home state Gamecocks, but due to his academic ineligibility at South Carolina, Evans transferred to Hutchinson Community College.
At Hutchinson, Evans became the highest rated junior college running back and the third highest rated junior college prospect, with a combination of both speed and power.
Tennessee’s second incoming running back is freshman Jaylen Wright, who enrolled in January under Pruitt, but decided to stay in Knoxville when Heupel was hired to take over the program.
Wright was a three-star prospect from North Carolina and possesses great speed with an ability to catch passes in the backfield – a role he could thrive in under Heupel.
With just 10% of last season’s rushing yards returning in 2021, the running back position is certainly up for grabs, with any of those four players capable of taking the lion's share of the work.
Despite the fact that Tennessee’s running backs will not get the same amount of publicity as the four-way quarterback battle will get, Heupel knows just how important it is to have a strong ground attack in his offense.
“So our ability for us, it really starts with the run game,” Heupel said. “It starts with the five guys up front, your tight ends, if they're playing. They're located in the core. And then our running backs have to be great with the football in their hands. That is a position that we're relatively young at, were hit by the transfer portal, but really like the guys that we have on campus.”