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2021 Breakout Players: Jabari Small

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Our breakout player series continues today with another player who will factor heavily into the Tennessee offense. Somewhat by default, Jabari Small has become the top option in the Tennessee backfield following the departures of Ty Chandler and Eric Gray. While there’s plenty of competition behind him, Small made the most of his opportunities this spring during Josh Heupel’s install period.

Amazingly enough, Small is Tennessee’s most experience running back, coming off of just 26 carries in 2020. Those came mostly in mop-up duty, totalling 117 yards. Small also added four catches for 24 yards during his first season as a Volunteer.

All of those numbers will skyrocket in 2021, with Small potentially operating as the lead ball carrier. All signs point in that direction, with JUCO transfer Tiyon Evans, true freshman Jaylen Wright, Dee Beckwith and Tee Hodge each working to find time behind him. Evans is likely the biggest threat, but injuries during the spring hindered him from making too much noise.

“You can just tell Jabari’s one of those guys that really was born to play running back,” Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack said during the spring. “He has a really natural feel, has great instincts at the position. You can tell he’s been really well-coached in high school and also, too, with the previous staff. He has a natural feel for that position right now. Every day we come out there and he is disciplined, he is focused, he understands protections right now, which is really intriguing and really impressive for a guy really of his youth.”

Small, a Memphis native, is a former three-star recruit. The 6-0, 200 pound back surprised with his powerful style in his debut year, giving us a few flashes against Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Against the Commodores, Small ran for 48 yards on just six carries — easily his best performance to date.

Now he enters a totally new offense that could really open up some more running lanes for him. Heupel’s attack features a spread system that is designed to take advantage of the numbers that the defensive look gives, and he’s proven to be pretty balanced with his attack. At UCF in 2020, Heupel had two backs with over 600 yards. In 2019, Heupel had four backs total more than 500 yards on the year.

The Tennessee offense will finally enter the modern era, departing from the I-formation looks under Jeremy Pruitt and Jim Chaney. You’ve seen most of the college football world go to this spread look, even Nick Saban’s Alabama offense. While the quarterbacks should benefit from the change, perhaps no other player on the team will benefit more than Small.