Tennessee has one of the closest facsimiles of Alabama running back Derrick Henry (6-3, 242 pounds) in the nation on its roster in Jalen Hurd (6-4, 240).
Don’t look for the Vols to stick their start running back on the scout team against the starting defense to get a good look though.
“Well we didn’t tackle Jalen, we don’t really face him – he’s with the offensive team against the defensive (scout team),” defensive coordinator John Jancek said on Tuesday evening when discussing how they prepare for Henry, the SEC’s second-leading rusher with 901 yards on the season so far.
The Vols had to get creative instead to try to find some way to simulate Alabama’s mega-sized back who ran for 76 yards on 18 carries even as a backup against Tennessee in 2014.
“We actually put [tight end] Neiko Creamer back there as a running back trying to simulate their personnel the best we can,” Jancek said.
There’s no true way to simulate one of the nation’s best backs, however. Henry spearheads a rushing attack ranked fourth in the SEC (198.7 ypg) that is also helped out by the more versatile Kenyan Drake (433 total yards).
It’s been a mixed bag for UT in rushing defense so far this year. The Vols currently sit at 11th in the conference in stopping the run (170.5 ypg). The Vols were fairly stout against Oklahoma’s star RB Semaje Perine and limited Florida on the ground as well. Arkansas and Georgia, even without their true starting running backs healthy, found plenty of room on the ground, however, piling up 440 combined rushing yards against UT. Jancek says the small details will be key for the Vols on Saturday against Henry and the Tide.
“Everybody has got to take care of their responsibility,” he said. “You have to play with great fundamentals, you have to get off blocks, you have to be great with your eye discipline and you’ve got to get him down.”
And even though Alabama isn’t known for its vertical passing attack this season, Jancek also acknowledged that too much attention against the run can get him burned as well. Quarterback Jake Coker has hit deep balls of 50+ in two of Alabama’s last three wins, showing he has the ability to punish defenses who completely sell-out to stop Henry.
“When you face the big backs in the backfield that we’ve been up against you start piling the box, you’re going to get some deep balls,” Jancek said. “We’ve got to do a great job – we’ve worked hard on that in the bye week – and it’s just going to be a blend of bouncing your calls around, piling up the box to now playing some split-safety defenses. Ultimately guys have to make a play.”