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Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, and Running Back Reps

With two potential stars in the backfield, how will the Vols split carries? We look at how other SEC teams have divvied up their carries.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

As the Orange & White Game approaches next weekend, there's always that list of newcomers we're most eager to see.  There are several names out there drawing the attention of Vol nation, but among message board chatter and sound bites and despite a thigh bruise in camp, Alvin Kamara will head into next Saturday as the clubhouse leader in preseason hype.  We'll have to wait to August to see if Kahlil McKenzie can chase him down by the season opener.

The best news about Kamara is that he doesn't have to be our most optimistic projections of him right away, something that's true for most of Tennessee's newcomers representing Butch Jones' second elite class.  Kamara doesn't have to be the answer at running back thanks to sophomore Jalen Hurd, another highly-touted recruit who turned in 899 yards last fall.  Instead, the Vols have the makings of one of their most dynamic one-two punches in a long time.

These days even teams that don't have a Hurd/Kamara-esque combo in the backfield are splitting carries among several players.  In the last seven years only eight SEC backs have averaged 20+ carries per game, and only one of them (Montario Hardesty, 21.6) played for Tennessee.  Quarterbacks are running more throughout the SEC, and that part has shown up in some strange ways for the Vols statistically:  in 2011 with the decidedly non-mobile trio of Bray, Simms, and Worley at the helm, Tauren Poole ran 15.5 times per game, and that was third most in the league.

Last year Hurd got 190 carries, representing 66% of the meaningful carries for Vol RBs (with apologies to the work of Justus Pickett, Deanthonie Summerhill, and Derrell Scott).  Marlin Lane added 86 and Devrin Young 10, missing most of the year with broken ribs.  The year before Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane split carries at about a 70/30 clip.

We've mentioned this before, but when Butch Jones had a player he liked at Cincinnati they rode him all day:  Isaiah Pead had 18.2 carries per game in 2011, representing 85.5% of the meaningful RB carries for the Bearcats.  But last year no SEC team came close to approaching anything like that percentage.

Here are the top RBs for each SEC team last season, and the percentage of meaningful carries they got among RBs:

  • Alabama:  T.J. Yeldon 48.5%, Derrick Henry 43%
  • Arkansas:  Jonathan Williams 44.7%, Alex Collins 43.3%
  • Auburn:  Cameron Artis-Payne 74.6%, Corey Grant 14.7%
  • Florida:  Matt Jones 50.6%, Kelvin Taylor 35.3%
  • Georgia:  Nick Chubb 47.5%, Todd Gurley 26.6%
  • Kentucky:  Four backs getting between 21-26%
  • LSU:  Leonard Fournette 41.2%, Terrence Magee 24.7%
  • Mississippi:  Jaylen Walton 40.6%, two others between 20-25%
  • Mississippi State:  Josh Robinson 59.1%, three others between 12-15%
  • Missouri:  Russell Hansbrough 50.1%, Marcus Murphy 43.2%
  • South Carolina:  Mike Davis 56.8%, Brandon Wilds 30.2%
  • Tennessee:  Jalen Hurd 66.4%, Marlin Lane 30.0%
  • Texas A&M:  Tra Carson 48.6%, two others between 28-30%
  • Vanderbilt:  Ralph Webb 71.1%, Dallas Rivers 20.4%
  • Average SEC Lead Back:  51.8% of the RB carries
Those expecting Hurd to have a significantly different season statistically or Kamara to break loose and really separate himself might be assuming both of them are going to get more carries than either will actually see.  In the SEC last year only Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri had a true sense of a dual threat backfield with neither party really featured.  On the other end of the spectrum you had the second best rushing team in the conference (Auburn) and the worst rushing team in the conference (Vanderbilt) leaning heavily on just one player.

The real area of improvement to look for from Vol backs this fall is yards per carry:  last year Hurd finished 25th in the SEC (among all players, including QBs) at 4.73 ypc, while Marlin Lane was 37th at 3.49.  We know some of that was the responsibility of the offensive line, which should improve at least somewhat.  Tennessee may very well have the luxury of two really good backs who can share the load and thus prevent one of them from putting up really crazy numbers.  But their chances to stay fresh and increase productivity on every carry are high.  Having two guys share the load has become the norm in a league where the "feature" back now gets just over half of the RB carries to himself.  If Alvin Kamara continues to live up to the hype, we may see Jalen Hurd get less than the 66.4% of the RB carries he saw last year.  But both can combine to lead Tennessee to a more dominant rushing attack overall, and a better chance at overall team success.