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‘Mature’ Jabari Small ready to lead the Tennessee backfield

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

Fall camp starts today for Tennessee, meaning a new era in the backfield is just weeks from getting underway. Gone are Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, and the Volunteers will lean on some new faces in the debut year of Josh Heupel.

The leader from the beginning has been Jabari Small, who is going into his second year in the program. He handled just 26 carries last season, but he’s expected to be the top guy in that room in 2021.

JUCO back Tiyon Evans is probably next, followed by a group of wildcards with no playing experience.

“An inexperienced group, but a group that we really like the talent inside of the room and the ability for them to play a part in what we’re doing,” Josh Heupel said on Tuesday. “I think as much as anything, during the course of spring ball we grew in the understanding of protections, which is a pivotal part of being able to play that guy on every down. Those guys got better with ball security. I think it’s a group that there’s a great competition in as we head into training camp.”

Very quickly in the spring, it was apparent that Small would be the top option. That was further solidified after Evans suffered an injury that cost him plenty of reps. This staff has spoken highly of Small since they arrived, and their tone didn’t change ahead of fall camp.

“From the moment I met Jabari, ‘maturity’ would be the word,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “Mature in so many ways in terms of how he carries himself, how he handles himself, his approach to the way he works.”

Small now gets his chance to really prove himself, set to benefit from playing in Heupel’s wide-open yet balanced offensive attack. Heupel has harped on balance, working to dispel any thought that his offense is just about passing numbers. At UCF last year, the Knights ranked top 30 in both categories on their way to putting up 568 yards per game, which was good for second in the nation.

In limited action last season, Small impressed with his tough running style, particularly against Arkansas and Vanderbilt. The former three-star recruit ran for 46 yards and two touchdowns during the Orange and White Game back in the spring.

“He’s really talented, has great feet, great balance, great vision,” Golesh continued. “He’s a natural running back. He’s a real SEC running back. But maturity, the way he goes about his work. I’m excited to see him grow, he’s going to be fun to watch.”

Tennessee opened fall camp on Wednesday morning in Knoxville, getting set for their season opener against Bowling Green on September 2nd in Neyland Stadium.