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Josh Heupel talks running backs to kick off spring football

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NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Some saw it coming, but not everyone did in Josh Heupel’s first year in Knoxville — the Tennessee rushing attack was pretty stout. Benefitting from tempo and spread looks, Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans proved to be a potent duo in the Tennessee backfield, giving the Volunteers a nice backbone to lean on offensively in 2021.

Heupel is set to run that attack back with Jabari Small in 2022, but will have to replace Tiyon Evans, who transferred to Louisville. Tennessee used a handful of other backs as the injuries piled up throughout the season, mostly Jaylen Wright and Len’Neth Whitehead.

Those two will battle for more playing time this fall, along with talented four-star newcomer Justin Williams.

After practice No. 1, Heupel discussed his running back group as a whole.

“I think that group has dramatically changed their bodies,” Josh Heupel said Tuesday. “The size of what they look like, lean muscle mass, they’ve done a really nice job as an entire group this offseason. From Jabari to Jaylen to Len’Neth.”

Heupel quickly singled out Williams, talking up his competitiveness.

“Adding Justin inside of that room has been really positive, and he’s a fierce competitor,” Heupel said. “I love the way he approached the offseason. He is a fierce competitor out there on the grass. You could see that today in a short amount of time.”

Personally, I think Justin Williams is about to have an instant role in this offense. Tennessee has a huge need for a No. 2 back, and Williams might already be the most talented man for the job.

He certainly looks the part.

A top 300 prospect, Williams is a nice all-purpose player flashing a little bit of everything. It’s entirely possible that he slides in behind Jabari Small right off the bat.

As you know, this staff uses plenty of backs though, so each of the top four will likely see significant time.

“That group’s only going to continue to get better,” Heupel said. “We need them to continue to get better. That’s in understanding our run schemes. Doing a better job of delivering our blockers. Being more explosive and being able to get pad under pad in some of the short-yardage situations, but also become better pass-blockers, too, and I think that’s an area that that position group can take a huge stride in this spring ball.”

No Orange and White Game this year as Neyland undergoes a facelift ahead of the fall. We’ll be leaning on media reports and coaches quotes for the next few weeks, but the RB2 battle is definitely on our radar.