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Jerry Mack talks progress of Tennessee running backs

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Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee’s rushing attack took a big step forward in 2021, and you can expect more of the same in 2022. Josh Heupel’s spread offense and tempo kept those running lanes open last season, powering the Volunteers to 217 yards per game — good for 11th in the country.

Running backs coach Jerry Mack lost Tiyon Evans from his room, but also added four-star prospect Justin Williams-Thomas. Jabari Small, now a junior, is set to return to his lead role. Jaylen Wright is a year older after being thrust into action as a freshman, while Len’Neth Whitehead is as healthy as he’s ever been.

The room is legitimately four deep now, and Mack broke down his unit with reporters earlier this week. Here are some notes.


On Justin Williams-Thomas

“The biggest thing that I see from him is he is a physical player when he understands what’s going on. Everything is moving extremely fast for him right now as a true freshman, but you can see he shows flashes of things that we really want to see. The physicality, the big body, the ability to get those tough 1-2 yards that we always talk about — he has that, when understands what to do.”

“I think it’s a day-by-day process right now. He’s got to earn, keep earning the trust of the coaches. Every day, every step for him is just one step at a time. Every day we see a little bit of growth here. Today was a footwork growth. He had some issues, just the running-game footwork (in the last practice). I don’t think he had a lot of those issues today, so as we grow over the summertime into fall camp, I’ve got to continue to feel comfortable with him, like you said before, in protections.”

On Jaylen Wright

“Man, he has made tremendous jumps within our program. Right now, when we talk about like I said before, accountability, that is tremendous growth. Also, too, you can talk about just his understanding of the game overall, the whys of why we do things. When he was a freshman last year, it was really just lining up and playing football. Go left, go right trying to figure it out. Everything was moving extremely fast.

“No different than it is for Justin right now, but now, what I see from J-Wright, we do things within practice where we talk to the unit, he’s called on a lot, especially since Jabari’s been out, to go ahead and talk to the unit because he’s the most experienced, really, back that has playing time right now. That guy has just made tremendous growth within our program.”

On Len’Neth Whitehead

“Len’Neth has really grown from a standpoint of he’s been more healthier his spring, and you can kind of see it in his game. Day by day, he’s shown flashes of what we feel like he can do. He’s probably the only one that really we trust, for the most part, from a pass protection standpoint as far as not only understanding what to do, but also, too, having the ability to get there. He’s a bigger-bodied guy, so 6-foot-2, 220, you’re talking about a guy that he matches up pretty good with a lot of linebackers, especially in this league. He has long arms, so it’s just like a boxer, when you have that arm reach, that he can put his hands on people extremely fast.”

On signee Dylan Sampson

“We are expecting Dylan, like all those guys, to come in and have a role. Exactly at this time what that role looks like, don’t know, but I definitely can see a guy with his speed and his ability (playing early). I’ve been talking to him a lot, he’s actually put on a little weight, so exactly a guy that we call a ‘ball in hand’ guy, a guy that can catch the ball in space, make people miss.

“He’s a 10.4, by trade, 100-meter dash guy, so he should be able to outrun some people in this league every now and then, but we’re excited about him coming in the door. We need for that guy to come in and have a role early, very early.”

On Jabari Small

“I think the first thing is just his body, more than anything. He ended the season last year, he was probably about 199 (pounds), I think in that last game against Purdue. By the time we hit and kind of started middle of the spring this year, he had been as high as 213, so the body weight and the mass and the armor that he has put on his body is just tremendous. He’s made a commitment to eating the right things. He’s made a commitment to putting more time in the weight room. I think you’re going to see a different body type than you saw last year on the field.”