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Why Tennessee’s Running Backs Are Exciting Josh Heupel

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel was full of excitement on Tuesday. The Vols began spring training camp early in the morning on Tuesday, officially kicking off the road to the start of the 2022 season.

Going back in time and looking at last season, though, the foundation for Tennessee’s offense was its running ability. Everyone agree? The Vols had a dominant passing attack last year as well, but as Heupel said throughout the season, the passing game could only be set up through an effective running game first. Tennessee ended the season with the second-most rushing yards per game in the conference last year with 217.85 yards on the ground.

Now, heading into the second year of the new era at Tennessee, Heupel is feeling good about the talent in his running back room once again.

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“I think that group has dramatically changed their bodies,” Josh Heupel said about his running backs on Tuesday. “The size of what they look like, lean muscle mass, they’ve done a really nice job as an entire group this offseason. From Jabari [Small] to Jaylen [Wright] to Len’Neth [Whitehead].”

Small was Tennessee’s leading rusher last year and will continue this season as the starter barring injury. However, last season, Heupel used an effective multi-running-back system to run his offense, with rushing attempts from the quarterback as well. With that in mind, it’s safe to assume that’s the same type of route that Tennessee will go this year. That leaves an opening for Wright and Whitehead to potentially step up and into that role for the Vols. With Tiyon Evans sidelined last year at various times with injury combined with him entering the transfer portal the day after Thanksgiving, Wright was given that next opportunity and performed well for a freshman.

“That group is only going to continue to get better,” Heupel said after practice. “We need them to continue to get better. That’s in understanding our run schemes, doing a better job at delivering our blockers, being more explosive, and being able to get pad-under-pad in some of those short-yardage situations. But also become better pass blockers, too. I think that’s an area that that position group can take a huge stride in this spring ball.”

There’s still another running back to mention as well, though. Incoming freshman running back Justin Williams was a four-star back in the class of 2022 and has been on campus for the last month as an early enrollee. Standing at six feet tall, Williams is another impressive tailback that could wind up competing for time on the playing field.

“Adding Justin [Williams] inside of that room has been really positive,” Josh Heupel said about his freshman running back. “He’s a fierce competitor. I love the way he approached the offseason. He is a fierce competitor out there on the grass. You could see that today in the short amount of time.”

Heupel mentioned the size of the running back room as a reason for his excitement. Just less than two weeks ago, Tennessee Basketball’s Twitter account posted a recent video of Jabari Small, Omari Thomas, and point guard Kennedy Chandler (three Memphis natives and longtime friends) playing a game of VOL (HORSE) on the court. Check out some of the size and build that Heupel was talking about below.

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