clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tennessee 2023 Position Preview: Running Backs

Some added depth and explosiveness should be a big plus.

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

The Tennessee offense will have a new quarterback pulling the strings this fall, as you know. It’s Joe Milton’s third and final shot to show the world he’s more than just a big arm, and he’s in the perfect spot to do it, entering year three working under Josh Heupel.

By now, you know about the Tennessee offense. It work with tempo and spacing, but massive amounts of stress on every defense they face. That spacing really opens things up for the rushing attack, which is something the Volunteers might be leaning on a little more heavily this season.

Tennessee ended the 2022 season ranked 26th in rushing yards per game. They’ll have to replace a couple of bodies up front in Darnell Wright and Jerome Carvin, but they return all of their running backs to the equation, while also adding another potential dynamic threat.

A year ago, depth was a legitimate concern with just four scholarship backs on the roster. They lost one of those in Justin Williams-Thomas, but added Cam Seldon, DeSean Bishop and Khalifa Keith. Seldon and Bishop got a heavy workload this spring, as Jabari Small was out and Jaylen Wright was limited. The thought process is simple — let’s keep Wright healthy and let Seldon and Bishop learn the ropes early. Building depth is key, and Tennessee did that this spring at the position.

Small, Tennessee’s second leading rusher from a year ago, wasn’t able to go due to a shoulder procedure following the season.

“The biggest thing from Jabari, which he addressed, was getting his shoulder and trying to get healthy,” Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack said. “He’s been down this whole spring, which has been good for him. He’s put on a little bit more mass, especially in his lower body. You look at his lowers, he’s continued to get stronger, more explosive.”

Small is steady as a runner, doing everything right and has become a guy that you can lean on. However, Jaylen Wright offers a considerable more amount of explosion, as evidenced by the statsheet. Wright averaged 6.0 yards per carry, compared to Small’s 4.7.

Fumbling issues plagued Wright during the early season, but he was able to clean some of that up as the year went on. Still, getting Wright more comfortable between the tackles was a focus of the offseason, according to Mack.

“I think Jaylen Wright needed to grow as an inside zone runner, really in between the tackles, getting more comfortable in between those noises,” Mack said. “Hitting the ball downhill, don’t bounce as much, things like that. Reduction from a standpoint of don’t take the big hits. And I think Jaylen, he hasn’t practiced as much as I would have liked him to, but he has surely grown. Those six or seven practices that he did practice in, he was looking like the best version that we’ve ever seen him.”

You’ve got a clear-cut top two there on the depth chart, no questions asked. You’ll see them split work to keep things fresh, perhaps with Wright getting a little bump up in snaps.

There’s also an obvious No. 3, which brings us to Dylan Sampson. The rising sophomore made some noise last camp as a true freshman, clearly dripping with athletic ability and explosiveness. We were able to see a little of that down the stretch as Tennessee let him get some work in.

For Sampson, this offseason was more about getting the details down.

“Really, it’s like night and day,” Mack said of Sampson. “From a protection standpoint, we all knew that Dylan had to come along and continue to grow just from a protection standpoint. You can see now where his eyes start, from a protection standpoint, the physicality that he does step up with, the power that he steps up with. Because he’s put on some weight. All that stuff, getting thrown into the fire last year at those certain moments, helped him develop. Helped him grow.

“When you look at him, he’s probably way further ahead than any guy that we’ve had here going into year two, to be honest with you.”

High praise there for Sampson, who certainly appears ready to become more of a factor in this offense. The path to significant carries probably doesn’t exist this year without an injury, but it’s nice to have some capable depth ready to go. That’s something that Tennessee didn't’ have last year.

From there we move to Cam Seldon, who really flashed in the spring game. The 6-1, 220 pounder handled carries, snaps out of the slot and even some work on the outside. It’s clear that Tennessee views him as a true offensive weapon, and it’s pretty obvious they the staff is excited about him.

“He’s been really good in what he’s done inside the running back room,” Josh Heupel said after the Orange and White Game. “He cares, he competes really hard. For a guy that’s got high-end top gear electric speed, he’s willing to stick his foot in the ground, get vertical, get underneath his pads, find a way to get plus two. He’s going to continue to grow who he is today.

“Man, I expect him to be dramatically better when we get to the kickoff of next September and I say that just because he’s going to continue to grow with the way that he works. He’s got a really high-end ceiling.”

The former four-star athlete will have a difficult path to playing time early, but we could see him take a Dylan Sampson like path and begin to see snaps late in the year.

Rounding things out are DeSean Bishop, who also impressed during the spring, and Khalifa Keith, who will join the team this summer. Both are likely future pieces, with Keith specifically added for short-yardage situations. We’ll get our first look at Keith during fall camp in a couple of months.

2023 Tennessee Running Back Depth Chart Projection

1a) Jaylen Wright

1b) Jabari Small

3) Dylan Sampson

4) Cam Seldon

5) DeSean Bishop

6) Khalifa Keith