Tennessee’s running backs impressed in the season opener against Bowling Green rushing for 282 total yards on 50 carries. However, the young group knows it can do more and be better starting this week against Pitt.
Still, the Vols’ rushers— especially the one-two punch of Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans— dominated the Falcons. The two backs each ran for 116 yards in the win, marking the first time UT had two players rush for over 100 yards since 2016.
“I talked to our guys about playing violent and playing physical the entire game,” running backs coach Jerry Mack said. “One thing that jumped out and really impressed me was the physicality and the violence they ran the football with. We knew there were going to be vertical seams and did a good of pressing and attacking those seams when we had the opportunity to.”
Small, a sophomore who entered the season with just 26 carries, wasn’t pleased with what he was able to accomplish against Bowling Green despite recording triple digit yards and a touchdown.
“As far as my performance, I wasn’t too pleased with it,” Small said. “I think that’s just the competitive nature in me, but I feel like the whole team, we did a good job of gelling, creating that chemistry to get better throughout the season.”
“I feel like I left some yards on the field. Getting to my one-on-ones and (I need to) make people miss.”
As for Evans, the junior college transfer dominated in the second half recording 104 yards on 10 carries. The South Carolina native even surprised his coaches with his ability to make defenders miss in the open field.
“The violence that he ran the ball with definitely didn’t surprise me,” Mack said. “That was what we had been seeing all through camp, with how physical he was. He has a strong lower body and was able to drag some piles for a few more yards. Especially yards after contact was one of the things we liked so much. One of the things that did impress me, and I was kind of shocked, was that he was able to make some safeties miss in space. He hasn’t been able to do that a whole lot in camp, for whatever the reason may be, but he went out there Thursday night and showed that he does have the ability to make the open-field tackler miss.”
Evans’ availability is a mystery entering Saturday’s contest. The former four-star recruit didn’t appear to get injured against Bowling Green, but Heupel was coy when discussing Evans’ availability on Wednesday’s SEC Coaches Teleconference.
If Evans doesn’t suit up Saturday, Tennessee will turn to freshman running back Jaylen Wright. The North Carolina native totaled 14 yards on four carries against Bowling Green, but his coaches believe his potential is better than what he showed.
“A lot of times when you get young freshmen in there, they get excited, and their adrenaline starts pumping inside Neyland Stadium,” Mack said of Wright. “He just got a little anxious. Once the game started, he started to calm down and know what his role was and some of the things he could do. We brought him to the sideline. We have talked extensively the last few days, and I think you’re going to see a different Jaylen Wright going forward.”
“Just keep pushing,” Small said of his advice to Wright. “It was the first game. We all, the whole running back room, we have to improve and get better. He’s a freshman, but he’s very talented. Everybody’s timing is different. He’s going to be good.”
One area Mack sees room for improvement has nothing to do with running the ball but pass blocking.
This could be even more important if Evans doesn’t play Saturday. The junior college transfer’s pass blocking graded out at an average 62.4 according to PFF in the opener while Small earned a putrid 16.8 grade.
“If there’s any area that we could improve in, I think that is the No. 1 thing we can improve,” Mack said. “There were certain situations where our eyes were in the wrong place or, for whatever reason, we were late getting to certain people or just let a guy freely come through. As you look at it over the next couple of days, that is one thing we will constantly try to improve on.”
Tennessee’s running backs started the season about as strong as you could imagine. The Vols averaged 5.2 yards per carry with a long run of just 21 yards in the opener. Still, that group believes their ceiling is higher and hopes to show that this week against Pitt.
The Vols and Panthers kick-off at noon ET at Neyland Stadium Saturday.