Perhaps overlooked in the mass of critical acclaim that Joshua Dobbs has received this week is the work that true freshman running back Jalen Hurd has done for the Vols in their comeback effort against Alabama and their overtime victory over South Carolina on Saturday.
Particularly in the SC game, Hurd, who now has 134 attempts for 598 yards (4.5 ypc) and two touchdowns rushing this season, showed why he was ranked as one of the best running backs in the nation coming out of Beech High School last season, as he piled up career highs in rushing (125) and total yardage (183) against the Gamecocks. He’s accounted for 269 total yards of offense over the past two games.
But perhaps most impressive might’ve been his conditioning and workman-like mentality, taking virtually every significant rep late in the game after Marlin Lane went down with an injury. Just a couple weeks removed from battling the flu bug and a bad shoulder before that, Hurd responded with 28 total touches, several key blocks and virtually all of the productivity from the running back position against the Gamecocks.
“Playing running back is a physical position and I thought he handled it well,” said coach Butch Jones. “He has worked extremely hard in the strength and conditioning area and taking care of his body. Jalen is mature for a freshman and we needed him, and he preformed very, very well for us and helped us play winning football. Helped us win the football game Saturday night.”
Hurd’s late-season surge can be credited to his hard work and talent, though the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs certainly has been a major factor as well. A running threat on any down, Dobbs has averaged 120.5 rushing yards per game himself, but just the threat of him taking off also opens up more room for Hurd.
“It’s great,” said Hurd. “Josh being able to run the ball like he does definitely helps me a lot. They have to respect his running game.
“You really don’t know who’s getting the ball specifically. Just having that run threat, you really have to respect me and respect him as well. It’s just a different look, but he can pass it as well very well and he’s outstanding.”
And that different look has been a nightmare for opposing defenses recently. The Vols, after going on a stint of over 120 minutes of game time against SEC opponents without a touchdown in the middle of the season, have now put up 65 points combined in their past two games.
In the process, they have rushed for more than double the yards (525) in their last two games than the other four games against major-conference opponents (257) combined.
“Each game is different in and of itself because of your matchups,” Jones added. “Some teams you match up better versus other teams. That is the game of football. But also I think anytime you add the element of a running quarterback, that helps.”
Of course, Hurd’s sheer size at 6-3, 227 pounds helps as well. Still fast enough to get the edge and outrun defenders, Hurd is big enough to get the tough yards for the Vols as well.
“His size helps you,” Jones said. “Now in the third and fourth quarter or anytime when he runs the football, it is running behind his pads and pad level and sometimes when you are 6-3 that is a challenge in and of itself. But he has done a great job and Coach (Robert) Gillespie has done a great job of really stressing some details, the body lean, playing with a physical style, and we have asked a lot of him.”
“You definitely need size at running back and that definitely helps you throughout the game,” Hurd added.
His speed and power were perhaps most on display during a fourth-quarter touchdown reception that pulled the Vols back to within one score against the Gamecocks. Hurd grabbed a middle screen, broke one tackle shortly after the catch that would’ve stopped him short of the first down, broke another that gave him even more space and he sped forward for a 21-yard score.
“Saturday night he finally got a chance to showcase some of his skill set,” Jones said. “Especially on the fourth-and-three screen with the balance, the spin and getting vertical and getting the ball in the end zone.”