Tennessee’s running back room was decimated by the transfer portal this offseason with Ty Chandler and Eric Gray both entering the transfer portal.
The Vols return just 142 tailback rushing yards from last season. However, the young unit has talent and capable pieces.
“I think it’s a group that there’s a great competition in as we head into training camp,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “The number of reps that we get during the course of a day on the offensive football, those guys will be able to get tested, be thrown in the fire, have a bunch of reps, make mistakes, grow from it and have success and grow from it, too. I’m looking forward to that competition this training camp.”
Most of Tennessee’s running backs were healthy this spring. Tiyon Evans served as the exception, missing time due to a minor injury.
The Vols’ leading returning rusher from last season turned heads.
“We left spring saying Jabari (Small) is definitely a guy that we can count on and we can trust,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “He’s still young, still hasn’t had a whole lot of time, but really proved that he understood what we were trying to do. Not a complete finished product but understood what we were trying to do, and I think attitude, effort and toughness, all those things embody what Jabari is.”
Small, a Memphis native, totaled 117 yards on 26 carries last season. The 5-foot-11, 206 pound back impressed in his limited opportunities and showed a down hill running style that should fit well in what Small described as a “north-and-south” running game with “tighter gaps”.
“From the moment I met Jabari, ‘maturity’ would be the word,” Golesh said. “Mature in so many ways in terms of how he carries himself, how he handles himself, his approach to the way he works. He has mountains to climb in terms of leadership and those types of things in terms of confidence. I think it’s really hard to lead when you haven’t played a ton and I think it’s really hard to have confidence when you haven’t physically shown it. I think preparation breeds confidence and he certainly has prepared that way. But it’s unique when the veteran of that group is a sophomore as a 19-year-old young man.”
Being able to lead without having proved your worth in a full season on the field is a challenging thing. Small made it clear Tuesday that he hasn’t done anything to separate himself from his running back teammates and all of them have lots of growing to do.
“None of us have led the room in rushing yet,” Small said. “We haven’t arrived yet, so all of us have to take that step and the next step is becoming more mature. Becoming more leaders. I have seen some glimpses from us but we have to become a collection of great running backs. We all have to step up.”
So how does Small, or anyone, lead in a running backs room that is full of new faces and unproved players?
“It’s challenging,” Small said. “It’s something I’m going to have to take care of day-by-day. It’s something I can’t change— I can’t change the past and I can’t look too far ahead so I have to focus on what I can control right now.”
Small is trying to grow into a leadership role as he proves himself more-and-more on the field, but there’s clearly going to be a learning curve and adjustment process. That makes running back coach Jerry Mack’s job even more challenging this fall.
Mack, a fellow Memphis native, has to get his unit ready for Bowling Green on Sept. 2 and do so potentially without a loud voice from a veteran running back. Mack has a nice piece in Small to build off of, but as Alex Golesh said Tuesday, Tennessee wants to play three to four running backs a game.
How Small steps up as a leader and who steps up as a contributor beside him will be worth watching in fall camp.