Update: Hat tip to The Swain Event on 1180 AM/WVLZ on 5/24/16 for inspiring this conversation and article. Check out their full podcast from that day for a longer discussion.
Much of the talk this offseason has centered around where current Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd ranks among the Vols’ storied history of running backs. Many think he’s very high up that list, while others still want to see what his junior year brings before placing him among the elite.
The Vols have a rich history of stellar running backs dating back to the General Neyland era. But for the purposes of this article, focus will mostly be on more modern backs when rules and style of play were more modernized. That’s not to take away from players like George Cafego, Gene McEver, Andy Kozar, or Hank Lauricella, though.
After two seasons with the Vols, Jalen Hurd currently has 2,187 rushing yards, placing him 12th on Tennessee’s all-time rushing list, 24 yards ahead of Rajion Neal and 96 yards ahead of Charlie Garner. Hurd needs just 892 yards this season to surpass Travis Henry’s career mark of 3,078 yards, the most rushing yards in UT’s history.
Jalen Hurd should be Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher by the time the 2016 season is over. But that alone won’t make him the greatest running back in Tennessee history. Travis Henry is currently the career rushing leader for the Vols, but many don’t consider him the best, opting instead for someone like Chuck Webb, Charlie Garner, or James Stewart.
But where does Hurd currently stand among Tennessee’s best running backs in school history?
Hurd was given the keys to the running back stable almost as soon as he suited up for the Vols. Marlin Lane dealt with injuries during Hurd’s freshman season, thus making Hurd the primary back for most of his freshman year. He’s accumulated his 2,187 yards on 467 carries in two seasons, an average of 4.7 yards a carry. But how does that stack up to the best running backs the Vols have had?
Tennessee’s career leading rusher, Travis Henry, had just two carries for four yards his freshman season. So he became the Vols’ career leader in rushing yards essentially in just three seasons as well. Henry got his 3,078 yards on just 556 career carries, giving him an average of 5.6 yards per attempt.
Hurd’s average yards per carry isn’t the greatest when compared to Henry’s, but it’s still favorable when put side-by-side to other great running backs in Tennessee history.
Arian Foster (2nd), Jay Graham (7th), Montario Hardesty (8th), and Curt Watson (9th) are all in the top ten for all-time leading rushers for the Vols, and all averaged less than five yards a carry. In fact, Hardesty averaged a modest 4.3 yards per attempt in his four-plus years with the Vols.
Then there’s players like Henry, James Stewart (3rd), Johnnie Jones (4th), Jamal Lewis (5th), Cedric Houston (6th), and Reggie Cobb (10th) who averaged over five yards a carry.
But two of the most explosive running backs in Tennessee history aren’t even in the top ten.
Charlie Garner averaged an impressive 6.7 yards per carry in his two seasons with Tennessee, totaling 2,089 yards on 313 carries. Garner transferred to the Vols after two years at Scottsdale Community College and even started ahead of James Stewart. But as impressive as Garner’s 6.7 yards an attempt is, it doesn’t touch Beattie Feathers’ 7.2 yards a carry from 1931-33. Feathers played in a totally different era, but that kind of average is still ridiculously high, and Feathers ranks 18th on Tennessee’s career rankings with 1,888 yards.
But a cursory glance at the stats don’t tell the whole story.
Consistency is key when trying to be the best, and Hurd has been just that thus far. Hurd has had 10 games in which he’s rushed for over 100 yards in his 26 career games. That ties him for fifth all-time with Garner, Houston, Stewart, and Cobb for most 100-yard games in a career. Travis Henry tops the list with 15 such games, and Jay Graham holds Tennessee’s record for most consecutive 100-yard games when he had nine straight in 1995.
Hurd, however, has never had a 200-yard rushing game. In fact, Hurd’s career-high for yards in a game is 151, which he totaled against Missouri last season. That total doesn’t hold a candle to some of the best performances in Tennessee history, though.
Chuck Webb had two 200-yard games in his Tennessee career and holds the mark for most rushing yards in a game in Vols’ history with 294 yards against Ole Miss in 1989. Webb likely would’ve had more had an injury not cut his time short at Tennessee. Tony Thompson, Jamal Lewis, Travis Stephens, and James Stewart all have two 200-yard games to their names as well. Johnnie Jones is the only Vol with three 200-yard rushing games, doing so in 1983 and 1984.
But even those numbers don’t give the whole picture.
In order to be the best, you generally have to beat the best. So far, the Vols haven’t done much of that during Hurd’s tenure. Tennessee did get a thrilling victory over Georgia in Neyland Stadium in 2015, but Hurd had just 80 yards on 21 carries in part because the Vols were down by a lot early and had to throw the ball more to come back. In Tennessee’s “big games” against Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, Hurd has 697 yards on 155 carries in those eight games, scoring five touchdowns as well. But the Vols only have one win as a team in those eight games.
Coming up big in big games is a true measure of a player’s worth. And that’s what separates the good from the best.
Travis Stephens posted some huge numbers in Tennessee’s toughest games in 2001. Stephens ran for 176 yards against Georgia in a loss, but helped the Vols win against Alabama with 162 yards and two scores and poured in 226 yards and two touchdowns in The Swamp to help the Vols triumph over Florida.
Jamal Lewis was another Vol that came up big in big games. Lewis carried the Vols against Auburn in 1998 before sustaining a season-ending injury and also had the most rushing yards ever by a freshman running back in Tennessee history in 1997. Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb had their moments, as well as James “Little Man” Stewart.
Even Jabari Davis, who had just 1,228 career rushing yards for the Vols, had a reputation for coming up big when it mattered most. Davis helped “drain The Swamp” twice against the Gators, and scored in all four games he played against Florida, racking up six career touchdowns against the Gators. And that’s why he’s called “the Gator Killer” to this day.
One reason Hurd’s stats aren’t better already is because he’s having to share the spotlight in the backfield. Hurd has had to split carries not only with other running backs, but also with quarterback Josh Dobbs throughout his career. Last season alone saw Alvin Kamara and Dobbs gain 1,369 yards on 253 carries. And those two figure to get their fair share of carries once again this year.
But Hurd isn’t the only Vol to split time either, as Henry himself wasn’t Tennessee’s feature back for most of his career, splitting time with Travis Stephens and Jamal Lewis. Chuck Webb and Reggie Cobb split time, as did Charlie Garner and James Stewart.
The Vols have had so many great running backs that players like Aaron Hayden, Stanley Morgan, and James Berry haven’t even been mentioned in this article. But that’s what happens when a university consistently produces top-level talent at one position. Those players are still great running backs, but they tend to be overshadowed by others.
So where does that leave Hurd?
Stats alone don’t make a running back great. What they do in big moments, how consistently they perform, and how much of an impact they have on their team’s performance all go into making a player great. Jalen Hurd has the stats and consistency thus far and appears to have the ability change how defenses scheme. Right now most consider him right around the top ten best running backs in Tennessee history. And with likely just a season left before he declares for the NFL Draft, he has a chance to move up fans’ rankings this season.
But unless Hurd can help the Vols overcome Florida, Alabama, and the like, then his legacy won’t overtake some of Tennessee’s top running backs in their history regardless of how many yards he racks up.