One could argue that this Tennessee rushing attack has actually taken a step back from what it was a year ago. The Volunteers seem to lack that explosive game-changer in the backfield — we saw flashes of what this offense looked like with one in Tiyon Evans last season.
However, Jabari Small has been solid and Jaylen Wright is coming right along. In fact, for much of the season, it was Wright out-producing Small. The 5-11, 200 pound sophomore back is known for his speed and explosiveness, but he’s had to learn how to run tough and really grind.
Part of that has been fixing a ball security issue, which nearly showed up again against Alabama. His early season fumble issues were a point of emphasis for Jerry Mack, but they clearly haven’t lost trust. To this point, Wright and Small have handled identical workloads — 79 and 78 carries each. Wright has been slightly more efficient, while Small has cashed in more in the redzone.
That newfound toughness was praised by Josh Heupel on Thursday.
“I just think last week in particular, the week before too, it showed up,” Heupel said. “But last week was his best week of running the football. Pad level, running his feet on contact. I think he’s gotten more comfortable and has a better understanding of what we’re doing offensively. The ability to be slow through the hole, then accelerate. The ability to use the blockers up in front of you. Those guys are playing blind to what is going on behind them. Those guys got to do a great job of delivering those blocks. And I feel like he’s continued to grow in that way.”
Wright handed 12 carries, running for 71 yards against Alabama. It was particularly notable that Wright was handling so much work down the stretch, with everything on the line. Of the two main backs Tennessee has, Wright definitely offers a little more explosiveness. But I think I speak for everyone when I say we were a little nervous watching Alabama try to swarm and strip him of the ball. Frankly, that forward progress ruling could have easily not been called. That was quite the quick whistle.
Wright has another opportunity to tidy things up this weekend, facing UT-Martin.
The Tennessee offensive line struggled a bit out of the gates in the run game, but they’re starting to find their groove at the right time. Wright and Small have certainly been benefitting over the past couple of weeks.
This week, you’re also going to see a lot of freshman Dylan Sampson, if I had to guess. It’s the last chance for the Volunteers to build depth, and running back remains one of the thinnest spots on the roster.
“Run plays are really important,” Heupel said. “It’s an important play for him to learn from. But he’s a young guy that we love inside of our program. Look forward to him playing and competing in this one. Just have a great amount of trust in him. He’s young in his football development. He’s going to continue to grow. But for a young running back, he’s got really good understanding of pace, vision, feel, making the right cuts and playing well through contact.”
Sampson has 20 carries for 103 yards and three touchdowns, playing mainly against Akron and Ball State. He’ll probably get the bulk of the second half work on Saturday.
Tennessee and UT-Martin are set for a Noon ET kickoff on SEC Network.