With Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee staff likely done at the running back position for 2019, the Vols’ backfield picture is pretty clear. They’ll return the two main contributors on the roster, while adding a big time freshman to the equation.
Tennessee’s run game struggles were largely a product of a struggling offensive line in 2018. The Vols rarely won at the line of scrimmage last season, making things difficult for whoever lined up in the backfield. Still, through that struggle, Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler established themselves as two of the top playmakers on the team.
With one, potentially two elite prospects coming to help on the offensive line, Tennessee’s run game should find improvement in 2019.
On the Roster: Ty Chandler (Junior), Tim Jordan (Junior), Carlin Fils-aime (Senior), Jeremy Banks? (Sophomore), Princeton Fant? (RS Sophomore)
Outgoing: Madre London
Incoming: Eric Gray (2019 four-star)
I think it’s probably safe to assume that Chandler is the guy on this roster with the most raw talent. I suppose that could change with the addition of Gray, but we’ll wait and see there. The 5-11, 201 pound back was Tennessee’s most explosive option in 2018, making a handful of game-changing plays for the Vols. His best trait is still his pure speed, which we saw on display against Georgia, Vanderbilt and UTEP.
Chandler ended up with 630 yards on 115 carries, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He made an impact on the passing game in the middle stretch of the season, catching passes in four consecutive games (Georgia-South Carolina). Chandler did not have a single catch outside of these four games, however, which is bizarre considering the success that Tennessee had when utilizing him in space. He scored a receiving touchdown in three of those four games, while racking up 183 yards in the process. That’s something I’d like to see the next offensive coordinator fix in 2019.
Jordan emerged as a playmaker way back in the spring with a strong performance in the Orange and White game. It was clear from that moment that this backfield was going to be split. Jordan didn’t disappoint with his opportunities either. He brought some of that physicality back to Tennessee’s backfield, which is something that John Kelly took with him to the NFL.
Jordan reminded us plenty of Kelly in the first game of the season against West Virginia, running angry and physical after Chandler went down early. That continued for much of the year, though Jordan’s numbers weren’t quite as pretty as Chandler’s. Jeremy Pruitt was publicly frustrated with Jordan’s decision making as a runner at a couple of points last season, so that’s likely something he’ll be working to fix in the spring.
Fils-aime was one of several players to flip from offense to defense back to offense last year. I’d expect less of those positional changes this year with several needs getting filled on the recruiting trail over the last two cycles. With the numbers at defensive back looking much healthier, Fils-aime will probably stick at running back and provide some depth for Tennessee in his senior season. He had a couple of bright moments filling in for Ty Chandler late last season.
Jeremy Banks/Princeton Fant
These are two more guys who flip-flopped positions last year. It’s not totally clear where the staff stands on Fant, but I’d guess Banks ends up playing linebacker this year. Banks flashed some real ability with the ball in his hands, but struggled with fumble issues throughout the year. He asked Pruitt to move to the defensive side of the ball during the Georgia game, which Pruitt eventually granted. All it takes is one injury and Banks might end up back on the offensive side.
Gray has some of the best high school production you’ll see, running for nearly 8,000 yards in three years as a starter. He doesn’t have the size at 5-9, 200 pounds, but he’s a creative playmaker that can really make plays in the open field. There’s a reason he was a top 100 player for 247 Sports in the 2019 class. As an early enrollee, Gray will have a chance to pick up the offense in the spring and push for playing time in the fall. It’s going to be interesting to see how quickly he can work up the depth chart.