There’s an opportunity at running back behind starter Jabari Small, and an unexpected candidate has entered the picture for some snaps this fall. Three-star prospect Dylan Sampson has arrived, and despite missing the the spring, he’s been able to roar onto the scene and impress the coaching staff early on.
The 5-11, 190 pound back got to Knoxville in June, at least able to get some summer workouts in with the team. His first few practices on grass have impressed, and now the Tennessee staff might just be forced to find a way to get the speedy weapon some early touches.
“He’s done a great job,” running backs coach Jerry Mack said. “He’s kind of a fan favorite right now in the building with his attitude, his personality, which we knew when we recruited him. Every day he comes out there and it seems like he does something really good with the ball in his hand, an explosive play.”
Sampson ran for 4,927 yards on 521 carries at Dutchtown High School in Louisiana. He set the single game school record with 287 rushing yards last fall, and now is hoping his explosive speed can get him on the field early for the Volunteers.
“We talked about him being a guy that was going to have those sexy runs, those long, explosive runs, and that’s what he’s held true to form,” Mack said. “He’s that guy that every day in practice, he’s been coming out there, he finds a way to get through the small creases.”
Tennessee is set to lean on Jabari Small this season, who has bulked up to 215 pounds as he prepares for the majority of carries. Beyond that, after the season ending injury to Len’Neth Whitehead, it’s a bit of a question mark. Jaylen Wright is back, but he’s been dinged up throughout fall camp. Lyn-J Dixon entered the picture late and provides a little veteran insurance, while Sampson and Justin Williams-Thomas learn the offense as true freshmen.
Williams-Thomas was the higher rated of the two, but threw a few weeks of camp, it’s been Sampson stealing the buzz to this point.
“He’s a smaller back and he gets to top-end speed really fast,” Mack continued. “We’ve been really impressed with his natural vision and his natural patience as a runner. Obviously the thing that he has to continue to grow in more than anything else is that physicality part of it, and that’s going to come as he gets in games more, as he gets in practice and those live reps more. I like the way Dylan’s operating within our offense as well. He’s playing with that sense of urgency that we need to do in our offense, because we play so fast.”
With Tennessee’s spread offense and lightning-fast pace, having a homerun hitter with Sampson’s speed in the backfield is a pretty exciting thought. Small is a little more of a grinder, but a guy like Sampson can give you a few snaps here and there and potentially create some big plays.
Sampson and freshman receiver Squirrel White have been two camp surprises. Neither are ready to be full time starters, but both have likely carved out some early snaps in their Tennessee careers.