Turns out fans aren't the only ones speaking with confidence these days:
"Jalen Hurd, I think, is the best running back in the country" - @UTCoachJones on @MrHurd_1 (@AtoZSports) #Vols https://t.co/IY0HRcWo0H— 94.9 Game 2 (@949Game2) May 10, 2016
It's a bold statement in a world with Christian McCaffrey and a conference with Leonard Fournette and a potentially healthy Nick Chubb. But hey, we're feeling especially good this year, so instead of asking ourselves why let's ask why not.
Hurd will have the opportunity to leave Knoxville as the school's all-time leading rusher in just three seasons if he can find 891 yards this fall. Apparently a few of those can be found on a high-speed treadmill in May:
23.1 Mph . Stumbled a lil, but recovered pic.twitter.com/MY8ffQZCyc— Jalen Hurd (@MrHurd_1) May 10, 2016
And we know, as Butch Jones said, Hurd can be utilized on all three downs or, if you're Rick Barnes, even more:
#Vols hoops coach Rick Barnes: Butch said Jalen Hurd is a three-down back. If I coached him, he’d be a four-down back. He’d win the Heisman.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) May 11, 2016
So there's plenty of praise already for Tennessee's 6'4" behemoth. But perhaps the best news for the Vols in this conversation? Hurd can still get better.
As the lead horse in Tennessee's stable, Hurd was one of 19 running backs last year to average 20+ carries per game. Here's what each of those guys did in yards per carry:
|Larry Rose III||New Mexico State||6.88|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||6.30|
|Marcus Cox||Appalachian State||5.86|
|Jeremy McNichols||Boise State||5.57|
|Tyler Ervin||San Jose State||5.45|
|Donnel Pumphrey||San Diego State||5.35|
|Joel Bouagnon||Northern Illinois||4.54|
(So if you're looking for the man to beat in this conversation, good grief, Fournette...)
What kept Hurd further down this list? Interestingly enough, two of his three worst games of the season in yards per carry were two of the best games of the season for the Vol offense as a whole. Hurd's low point here was 61 yards on 19 carries (3.39 ypc) at Kentucky, which was Tennessee's high point at 6.99 yards per play. Hurd also averaged just 3.81 yards per carry against Georgia, but Tennessee got 5.77 yards per play in Team 119's signature win. When defenses sold out to stop Hurd, the Vols made them pay for it.
Hurd can also improve his big play numbers, which certainly aren't bad to begin with. He was 15th nationally last year in 10+ yard runs with 43. But Josh Dobbs had just as many 20+ yard runs as Hurd did, with both ranking 44th nationally with 10 each. Being the best means getting the highlights that come with it.
And the Vols could try to involve him more in the passing game. Last year Alvin Kamara caught 34 passes to Hurd's 22, though their yards per catch numbers were nearly identical.
I would imagine Hurd was already playing with somewhat of a chip on his shoulder, in part the same way everyone on a Tennessee squad looking for its first championship in nine years is. But his head coach also put somewhat of a target on his back yesterday. I would imagine Butch Jones did so because he believes his star running back can not only handle it, but be motivated by it.