Josh Heupel came in talking a big game about his rushing attack, and he backed it up in year one at Tennessee. His balanced offense utilized several different running backs, along with quarterback Hendon Hooker in the run game. The Volunteers saw a few different names toting the rock in 2021, thanks to a couple of key injuries.
By now, you know Tiyon Evans has moved on to Louisville after a strange exit. Reserve back Dee Beckwith also hit the portal. Tennessee will return Jabari Small, while adding two backs in the class of 2022.
Let’s take a look at what the depth chart will look like this fall.
1. Jabari Small (Junior)
Small had a solid season for Tennessee, and the Volunteers certainly missed him when he was out of the lineup in 2021. The 5-11, 206 pound back handled 140 carries, rushing for 792 yards and nine touchdowns in year one under Josh Heupel. He should return to a lead role of sorts, though we know this staff likes to use at least two backs considering the tempo they operate with.
Whatever happens, Small will be one of the top options for Heupel and Golesh this fall.
2. Justin Williams (Freshman)
Tennessee is going to be searching for that running mate to pair with Small, and that very well might end up being Justin Williams. The four-star prospect has signed and joined Tennessee for the spring, set to get to work in hopes of playing early this fall.
Williams runs with pop, shows plenty of burst and displayed nice vision as a high school senior. He’s going to benefit from a shallow running back depth chart in Knoxville, and he instantly becomes one of the most complete backs on the roster.
This is me projecting some, but the opportunity is there.
3. Jaylen Wright (Sophomore)
Tennessee probably wasn’t expecting to play Wright last year, and I’m not sure Wright was expecting to get as much run as he did as a true freshman. The former three-star prospect was brought in as a speedster, but in certain spots, Wright was forced into action as a feature back. He responded with 409 yards and four scores, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Tennessee lacked a little something with Wright in the game, as the freshman struggled early on with vision and didn’t bring much pop to the table. He did improve as the year went on, as you would expect, however. Now with another year to add a little more muscle, it will be interesting to see what kind of jump he can make.
Expect Wright to battle Williams for that RB2 role during the spring and fall.
4. Len’Neth Whitehead (Rs Sophomore)
And now for a bit of a wildcard — here comes the 6-2, 220 pound Whitehead. He’s clearly the only big-bodied back on the roster, and actually provided some decent flashes when his number was called last season. However, injuries have held him back to this point in his career.
Whitehead missed handled 32 carries, rushing for 260 yards during his redshirt freshman campaign. He absolutely has a chance to make some noise this offseason if healthy, bringing an entirely different style to the table.
One note here — most thought Whitehead would eventually end up at linebacker out of high school. Considering Tennessee’s numbers there, if they aren’t able to land another transfer, could we see Whitehead flip over to defense?
5. Dylan Sampson (Freshman)
Sampson seems similar to Jaylen Wright as a prospect, doubling as a track star in high school. The 5-9 running back is listed at just 180 pounds, which will likely change as Sampson gets in the nutrition and strength program this year. Never say never, as we saw last season, but Sampson appears to be in for a redshirt season in 2022.
Let’s face it. Tennessee doesn’t have a ton of depth here, and the depth they do have is very young. I think this is an underrated need in the portal, just for insurance purposes. They don’t really need a starter or feature back, but a guy that could come in and compete for the RB2/RB3 role could be valuable come November.
Tennessee largely whiffed during the first wave of the portal, but we’ll see another round coming out of the spring. I’m interested to see if they feel the need to address this position.