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Roster reset: Running back

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What’s left?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s backfield will look quite a bit different in 2021, both from a scheme and roster standpoint. Josh Heupel is bringing his spread attack to Knoxville, but he’s already been preaching about offensive balance. The running back will still very much be involved offensively, though the days of the jumbo sets and I-formation looks are behind us.

Heupel will start fresh in the backfield after two key members of the Tennessee backfield transferred out before he even arrived. So what exactly will it look like? To be honest, that remains a mystery — but here’s what we have at this point.

Departures

  • Ty Chandler, Eric Gray

Returning in 2021

  • Jabari Small
  • Tee Hodge
  • Dee Beckwith
  • Len’Neth Whitehead

Additions

  • Jaylen Wright
  • Tiyon Evans

First let’s begin with a couple of wildcards here that committed to Tennessee as athletes. Dee Beckwith, standing in at 6-5, 220 pounds, shifted to running back last fall to solve a numbers issue. He could easily land back at receiver or even potentially at tight end, but all of that will depend on how the new staff views him. Another potential mover could be Len’Neth Whitehead, who was unable to play or practice last season due to an injury sustained in high school. He was labeled a running back by the last staff, but also doubled as a linebacker prospect. Considering Tennessee’s lacking numbers at that position, it’s conceivable that Whitehead could get a try back on defense.

The clear-cut returning contributor with the best chance to lead this group is Jabari Small, who impressed with his tough running style in spurts last season. The freshman tailback ran for 117 yards on 26 carries, buried on the depth chart behind Gray and Chandler in 2020. Now set for his second freshman season, Small returns with the most production on the roster, but we still don’t have an idea of how he could handle an extended workload in the SEC.

Tee Hodge only was able to play in one game during the 2020 season, and that came on special teams. The former three-star prospect remains an unknown at this level, but has a chance to make some noise right off the bat in the Heupel era. Hodge is a former four-year starter at Maryville High School.

Considering what happened with Gray and Chandler, how big was getting Tiyon Evans back in the boat? Of course this staff didn’t recruit him, but they’ll happily accept the addition. Evans was the top JUCO running back in the 2021 class and the third ranked JUCO prospect available. After briefly decommitting, Evans rejoined Tennessee’s 2021 class late in the fall and signed. The 5-10, 215 pounder certainly could step right into a starting role for the Volunteers this fall, bringing a little bit of everything to the table as a runner.

And finally, Jaylen Wright is going to bring a different style to the Tennessee backfield, adding legitimate track-star speed to the offense. The 5-11, 195 pound back was a three-star prospect in the last cycle, coming out of Durham, North Carolina. As different as he is from everything else on this roster, it will be interesting to see if he can carve out a role.

Coaching the running backs will be Jerry Mack, who has both head coaching and offensive coordinator experience.

“Any time you get a chance to go to a certain place, you want to look at the roster, you want to see what the opportunity and what the chances are that they have some young people that’s going to give you an opportunity to be successful, and that’s what I did,” Mack said during his introductory press conference. “I looked at the roster, I looked at what was coming back, even though we had a couple of guys transfer, but I’m still excited, extremely excited about the room that we have right now.”

Mack has his work cut out for him with almost no returning experience. The good news? It’s a brand new system, so everyone is starting on equal footing. Out of the entire roster, this may be the most wide open positional battle that Tennessee has going.