Football vs. Vanderbilt

Tennessee Running Back Jabari Smalls (2) runs past blockers during the Tennessee vs Vanderbilt football game on Nov. 27, 2021 in Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN.

The spotlight of Josh Heupel’s offense is focused – rightfully so – on the passing game and quarterback. In 2021, Hendon Hooker reinforced that belief with a breakout season as the Vols’ signal caller.

But don’t overlook the run game in Heupel’s fast-paced scheme. It was a key cog in Tennessee’s record-setting offense a year ago, and it figures to be so again in the second year of the Heupel era.

Tennessee returns its leading rusher from a year ago, Jabari Small. As a sophomore in 2021, Small totaled 796 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and 72.36 yards per game. Small was a nice compliment to Tiyon Evans, who ran for 525 yards and six touchdowns.

However after the season, Evans found a new home via the transfer portal at Louisville, leaving Tennessee without the second-half of its one-two punch.

The Vols now have a handful of options at tailback alongside Small. After rushing for 207 yards and two touchdowns as the Vols’ No. 4 back in 2021, Len’Neth Whitehead was set for an increased role in his redshirt sophomore season. Heupel, however, announced Sunday at Tennessee’s media day that Whitehead had sustained an upper body injury and had undergone season-ending surgery.

Sophomore Jaylen Wright should be the primary backup to Small this season. Wright burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2021, with injuries creating an opportunity for Wright to amass 409 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh praised Wright’s energy entering his second year in the system on Sunday.

“He's exuberant and really excited to be here, and raises his hands to answer questions like he's a different kid,” Golesh said. “That's been really, really, exciting.”

As far as newcomers go, two incoming freshmen in Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson have emerged as intriguing depth options behind Wright in the Vols’ backfield.

Williams-Thomas, standing at 6-foot-0, 210 pounds, is the bigger option between the two – Sampson came into fall practice at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. Williams-Thomas enrolled early, and he spent the offseason with the Vols working on his footwork, ball-catching ability and pass-protection. Sampson has impressed with his elite speed despite only joining the program over the summer. The two freshmen have formed a close bond that’s helped each other learn the ins and outs of the program.

“I'm just trying to be the best that I can be,” Sampson said. “(Williams-Thomas) also helps that because me and him over the summer got work in together. He helped me when I first got in to learn the offense quickly. We help each other now. We correct each other. It's all love between us. I feel like we are a good duo in this system.”

Don’t take all the options to mean the Vols are not confident in what Small can do as their primary rusher. Tennessee’s coaching staff has raved not only about Small’s physical transformation – he put on seven pounds over the offseason in an effort to become more versatile – but also his presence early in the year.

Small knows he has his coaches’ confidence as the No. 1 back, and he will need to play at that level to realize the Vols’ lofty aspirations.

“Any time you know you're the guy going into the year, just the way (Small) even walks into the facility, there's a different look on him,” Golesh said of Small. “There's a confidence about Jabari. I don't think he was super confident a year ago, and now there's a confidence about him.”

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