Following the exit of Tiyon Evans and a strong close to the 2021 season, the lead role in the Tennessee backfield is clear. Junior Jabari Small is the unquestioned leader of the group heading into Josh Heupel’s second year, and he’s set for an even bigger chunk of carries.
So what’s he been doing to prepare? Adding bulk. Small played at just under 200 pounds last season as a sophomore, shouldering a pretty good sized load of carries. Perhaps as a result, he was dinged up for much of the season.
According to running backs coach Jerry Mack, Small has put on some bulk ahead of the fall.
“One thing about Jabari that he’s done a great job, he’s added armor to his body,” Mack said on Tuesday. “You look at the last game of the season, I think he weighed out at about 199. This year he’s been weighing in consistently between 212 and 215. That’s just going to help him down the road. As we get into games, down the stretch, being able to finish games is what we’ve been talking about, so the increase in carries should really help him a ton.”
Small handled 141 carries, running for 796 yards and nine touchdowns in 2021. Hendon Hooker received plenty of working in the run game, while Jaylen Wright and Tiyon Evans followed.
Without much experience either on the roster behind him, the staff is hoping Small can stay available and be the workhorse this season.
“The added weight should help him a ton to try to increase his carries,” Mack said. “It’s one of the things that we’ve been really focusing on with him in the offseason and obviously in fall camp, is just trying to make sure that you understand how to finish the practice.”
Tennessee lost Len’Neth Whitehead over the offseason to injury — a big blow to the depth at the position. It was also the loss of a bigger back, one that perhaps could have made an impact on the goal line or in short yardage situations. Those spots will now likely be handed to Small, and the added bulk should help.
“One thing about weight and strength is it changes your mindset as well, so when you talk about down there in the red zone, short-yardage – he just has a different mentality about how he’s going to go ahead and get that first down and go – we talk about ‘pad plus-2’ – all those different things,” Mack said. “The mindset has really changed for him with that added weight.”
Jaylen Wright should be the second running back this fall, while a couple of freshmen — Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson — have been impressive during camp. And there’s also the wildcard now in the mix, Lyn-J Dixon, who came full circle and lands at Tennessee with two years of eligibility remaining.
Tennessee had the 11th ranked rushing offense in the country last season, which was an impressive and perhaps surprising output in Josh Heupel’s first season. With Hooker, Small and four starters up front back for more, the Volunteers should find similar success in 2022 — and Jabari Small will be leading the way once again.