Following the loss of both Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, the running back room was a pretty large question mark entering the spring period. Tennessee returned Jabari Small and Dee Beckwith, while adding JUCO transfer Tiyon Evans to the mix. A host of other backs are also in the picture, but through a handful of spring practices, one man has certainly seemed to separate himself.
Jabari Small has drawn the praise of a few coaches so far this spring. The sophomore back out of Memphis played sparingly in 2020, but based on comments made from the staff so far, Small might just end up being the lead guy for the Volunteers in 2021.
“He’s one of those guys that was born to play running back,” running backs coach Jerry Mack said of Small on Tuesday. “He has a really natural feel, has great instincts. You can tell he’s been really well coached from high school, and also too with the previous staff. He has a natural feel for that position right now.”
Small was buried behind Chandler and Gray, but the exit of Tim Jordan kept the door open for him in 2020. Though he found limited chances to show it, Small was really impressive when called upon. His tough style was notable, coming from a guy who checks in at just 5-11, 206 pounds.
In total, Small handled just 26 attempts which went for 117 yards. Now in a totally new offense, he’s pretty clearly the leader in the clubhouse to take over this backfield.
“Every day we come out there and he’s disciplined, focused,” Mack said. “He understands protections right now. He’s really intriguing and really impressive for a guy in his youth. Right now he’s been extremely impressive to everyone on the field, the way he handles his business, the way he goes about his business. He takes care of business like a pro, we talk about that in the room all the time.”
Tiyon Evans will certain get plenty of run, but he’s battling an injury right now which has slowed his progress. Other players like Jaylen Wright, Tee Hodge and Len’Neth Whitehead are currently trying to crack the rotation.
Maybe outside of Velus Jones Jr., no other player has earned more consistent praise so far in the first couple of weeks of spring practice than Small.
“These first six practices, he’s really been a spark,” Mack finished. “He’s showing his true colors and I think he’s going to really help us this year.”