The Tennessee rushing attack stole the show during the opener, pushing the Volunteers out to a 38-6 victory over Bowling Green. As the passing attack fell off, the run game, powered by a dominant performance up front, picked up the slack.
Both Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small ran for 116 yards on the night, getting Josh Heupel’s ground game off and rolling. Not to discount Small’s effort, but it was Tiyon Evans who stole the show in his Tennessee debut.
On Monday, running backs coach Jerry Mack broke down that performance.
“The violence that he ran the ball with definitely didn’t surprise me,” Mack to reporters today. “That was what we had been seeing all through camp, with how physical he was. He has a strong lower body and was able to drag some piles for a few more yards. Especially yards after contact was one of the things we liked so much.”
Evans, the former No. 1 ranked JUCO running back in the 2021 class, stands in at 5-11, 220 pounds. He’s got some pop to his game, clearly along with some burst, as we saw against Bowling Green.
The South Carolina native averaged 7.3 yards per carry, toting the ball 16 times for 116 yards.
“One of the things that did impress me, and I was kind of shocked, was that he was able to make some safeties miss in space,” Mack continued. “He hasn’t been able to do that a whole lot in camp, for whatever the reason may be, but he went out there Thursday night and showed that he does have the ability to make the open-field tackler miss.”
Tennessee is replacing Eric Gray and Ty Chandler after both hit the transfer portal following the 2020 season. It’s early, but the Volunteers didn’t miss a beat in week one. Now comes Pittsburgh, who is replacing three key members of their defensive front from a year ago. Still, this unit will provide a stiff test for the Volunteers ahead of SEC play.
“When I see Pitt’s defense, I see physicality and fundamentally sound,” Mack said. “I told guys earlier, when (Pitt is) supposed to take it on with a correct shoulder, that is what they will do. If they are supposed to fit the gap, they will fit that gap. They don’t miss a lot of open-field tackles, which is a compliment. You can see why they have been one of the best defenses at stopping the run in the country the last few years.”
The big question entering this game is this — can Tennessee rely on Joe Milton and the passing game? If they can’t, expect Pitt to key in on the ground game with safeties and make the Vols win through the air. From there it becomes a numbers game on the perimeter, and it’s a matchup that Tennessee must win to come out on top Saturday.
With an equal opponent on deck, I’m fascinated to watch this run game operate on Saturday.