WATCH: Tennessee Running Backs Talk Spring Camp

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    After the Vols’ 12th practice of spring camp on Monday, the Tennessee running back room was front and center for the press conference following the workout. Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack began the meeting with the media, followed by running back Len’Neth Whitehead and freshman running back Justin Williams-Thomas.

    Tennessee running back Jabari Small is not going through practices this spring and instead is working to rehab an injury.

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    Justin Williams-Thomas on how everything has gone so far since getting to campus…

    “Pretty good, just been practicing and improving my game every day. Just trying to contribute to the team every way that I can. Basically, just trying to get better every day and build my relationships all my teammates and getting ready for the fall. So I feel like it’s been pretty good.”

    Justin Williams-Thomas on how difficult the playbook and scheme has been to pick up compared to high school…

    “It’s a little bit more difficult. You have a lot more responsibilities, but I feel like getting here early helped me a lot being to truly understand pass protection and my responsibilities. There are a lot more assignments in college that you have worry about compared to high school. I feel like getting here early helped me a lot in just understanding my protections, just who to pick up, but it has been more challenging picking up blitzes compared to high school.”

    Justin Williams-Thomas on if he came in looking to be a leader or does it come naturally…

    “Coming in from high school, I was a leader so even though I’m young, just trying to lead and make sure people are good. Just trying to help out any way possible, that’s what I try to do. I don’t try to overstep any boundaries, but I definitely try to be a role model and try to help any way possible.”

    Len’Neth Whitehead on his pass blocking skills…

    “Coming out of high school, I played linebacker, so I’ve always kind of embraced contact. I’ll step up, take the contact, try to take the coaching and use the technique. To bring that, along with my aggressiveness, it’s kind of been working for me.”

    Len’Neth Whitehead on what is intriguing about Josh Heupel‘s offense…

    “The pace. There have been times when we’ve caught the defense looking at the sidelines. The d-line is at, like, linebacker depth. You can see the advantages of moving tempo and catching the defense off guard. It helps a lot with the running back, because now you know your o-line has an advantage against the defense. So, you’re automatically in a better position.”

    Len’Neth Whitehead on the culture of Tennessee Football…

    “One team, one heartbeat is our slogan that we say. Coach Heupel is big on that and I feel like the whole has been trying to dive into that this season. Last year, I felt like we were halfway there and took steps in that direction, but this season I think we understand that if we really move as one heartbeat, we have a good chance of having a lot of success this season.”

    On what he sees in the running back room now that is different from the fall…

    “I think right now, the biggest thing I can say is our accountability. One thing, we had a lot of issues with some of our guys not being where they are supposed to be off the field and that carried over, sometimes, on the field. But now, the room has changed dramatically. You see guys making sure they have more leadership responsibility in the room. Guys like Jabari Small have taken a different role. Jaylen Wright is a little bit older so that maturity is really transforming into accountability. The type of things that you always want to see from your players, as far as being in the classroom. Also, you do not have to look for those guys in regards to being on time for meetings and things like that. Sometimes that was an issue, as far as understanding that five minutes early is what we want, not right on time. That is the biggest thing that I see from our room this year.”

    On Justin Williams-Thomas

    “As far as Justin, the biggest thing I have seen from him is that he is a physical player when he understands what is going on. Everything is moving extremely fast for him right now as a true freshman. But you can see, he shows flashes of things that we really want to see. The physicality, the big body and the ability to get those tough one to two yards that we always talk about, he has that when he understands what to do. Things are still going quite a bit fast for him right now, but for the most part, I think with more reps, more practice, summer and fall camp, I think you are going to see a different player when we get into the season.”

    On Jaylen Wright’s growth from year one to year two…

    “He has made tremendous jumps within our program. Right now, when we talk about accountability, there is tremendous growth. Also, you can talk about just his understanding of the game overall, the why’s behind why we do things. When he was a freshman last year, it was really just lining up and playing football. Go left, go right and try to figure it out. Everything was moving extremely fast, no different than it is for Justin right now. But now, what I see from Jaylen Wright, we do things within practice where we talk to the unit, he is called on a lot, especially since Jabari Small has been out. To go ahead and talk to the unit because he is the most experienced back that has playing time right now. So, that guy has made tremendous growth within our program. He can eventually be a poster boy to a guy that comes in, basically as a freshman or early enrollee, and then every year continues to get better in the growth process.”

    On how comfortable he has to be in Justin Williams-Thomas to put him on the field in the fall…

    “I think it is a day-by-day process right now. He has to earn and keep earning the trust of the coaches. Every day and every step for him is one step at a time. Everyday we see a little bit of growth here, today was a footwork growth. He had some issues with just a running game footwork. Today, I don’t think he had a lot of those issues. As we grow over from the summer time into the fall camp, I have got to continue to feel comfortable in him in protections. That is the biggest thing that is different from a young high school guy, to making that jump to college, no different than jumping from college to pro. It is just the protection aspect of it. He does have to get better. All of them have to get better, but everything is moving so fast for him right now. I think he has to continue to grow. I would have never imagined him in a million years that a guy like Jaylen Wright would end up being thrust into those situations last year. You can talk about the last play at the end of the season, you have true freshman in there because of our bodies. There is no difference. You never know what could happen. Our goal is to make sure he is prepared to play to the best of his ability and to continue to work with him. It is one day at a time for him.”

    On having Jaylen Wright, who went through the same things that Williams-Thomas is going through now…

    “I think for all of them, to be honest with you, if you take a look at even Jabari’s background. He played a little bit in that 2020 season, not very much. He was still kind of a freshman to be honest with you last year in the ’21 season. So, all of those guys have been through a little bit of that in a standpoint. There is no young player, so to speak, in our program. Guys have to come in and they have to learn fast and figure out what is going on so they can be ready to play. We just do not have that luxury to sit guys and say we can groom you and do things like that. Man, when you come here, the expectation is that you are ready to play. We are going to try to do everything in our power to get you ready to play. But guys like Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright being in similar situations in the past, those guys like Justin can really lean on those guys to understand, not only on the field, but on how to manage your day or anything else. There are a lot of new things getting thrown at Justin on and off the field. He has to make sure he knows how to manage it all and take care of his body. He is a big back at 210 to 215 pounds. He is probably one of the bigger back’s we got in the room. He is a muscle guy, low body fat, so the wear and tear on the body over the course of the spring, he has to learn that. Guys like Jabari, who dealt with shoulder issues last year, and guys like Jaylen Wright, who dealt with turf toe issues last year. Those guys can mentor him and let him know, ‘look, go into the training room, get into the cold tub, sleep, extra treatment.’ All of that is truly important to what you end up doing on the field.”

    On what Len’Neth Whitehead has done this offseason…

    “Len’Neth has really grown from a standpoint of being healthier this spring. You can kind of see it in his game. Day-by-day, he has shown flashes of what we feel like he can do. He is probably the only one that we really feel like we can trust, for the most part, from a pass protection standpoint. As far as, not only understanding what to do, but also having the ability to get there. He is a bigger body guy at 6-2, 220, so you talk about a guy that now matches up pretty good with a lot of linebackers, especially in this league. He has long arms, so he is like a boxer when you have that arm reach that he can put his hands on people extremely fast. From that standpoint, Jabari, you never want to see a player out, but by Jabari being out it has increased his reps tremendously. It is just a matter of getting more reps in there and now he has made some growth on the pass protection standpoint. He has shown some flashes as a runner, as you saw last week in the scrimmage. He is understanding a little more about the running back position and what we expect and want from that position. Keeping those tight tracks, keeping things more vertical downhill, not bouncing things. That was something that all of them had to grow in and he has showed that he is growing in that this offseason.”

    On the perspective of a running back by committee…

    “I think it is reality of where we are at in college football. You can even see it in the National Football League. The days of guys getting 35, 40 carries in a game and those war-daddies, those days are a little bit gone. We would like to have guys that are running back by committee, to be honest with you. Because that shows that we are recruiting the right guys to come in and contribute right away. That shows that the development in the room is where it needs to be and that breeds competition. It means we will always get fresh bodies and the best guy that is performing the best all week. The expectation is that all of those guys are ready to play and the cream rises to the top. We are always going to play the best players. You do hope that when you put 1A, 1B, the two or three in the game, you hope that the drop off is not that great. That means that we have to continue to bring quality people in the building.”

    On where he wants the growth to be in the run game…

    “The first thing I want to do is build a toughness in the room. I want guys to understand how it takes an entire room to win football games. I want guys to understand how to finish games. Last year, we had some situations where a guy like Jabari or some other guys we had, they may have not finished the game. Understand that when you go into the game and strap up, you are going to finish the game. Also, too, from the run game perspective, we need to continue to create explosive plays. This offense is built around making sure guys create explosive plays. Understanding exactly which runs are supposed to hit, exactly where free-hitters are so that they can understand how to make guys miss. I refer back to the game against Kentucky last year. Jabari had a really great run, but crossed the safety’s face in one-on-one traffic and ended up scoring a touchdown. Just more of that. More understanding exactly how to make guys miss in space and get downhill.  The last thing I will say is, understanding the physicality that we need more in our run game. We need to be able to finish what we call pad plus-two. We need to be able to, on contact, fall forward on 3rd & 1, 3rd & 2, getting those yards on the first try and not get it on fourth down. Make sure that Coach Golesh and Coach Heupel, they call this play one time and it is going to get the first down. That physicality in our room needs to continue to grow.”

    On how important it is for Dylan Sampson to come in ready to go…

    “Extremely important, we are expecting Dylan, like all those guys, to come in and have a role. Exactly at this time, what that role looks like? I don’t know, but I definitely can see a guy with his speed and his ability– I’ve talked to him a lot. He’s actually put on a little weight. So, exactly a guy that we call a ball-in-hand guy. A guy that can catch a ball with space and make people miss. He’s a 10.4, by trait, 100-meter dash guy, so he should be able to outrun some people in this league every now and then. We’re excited about him coming in the door. We need for that guy to come in and have a role early, very early.”

    On what a freshman needs to do and know to be able to play early…

    “I think we try to figure out exactly what they do best. For example, we were just talking about Dylan SampsonDylan Sampson is the kind of guy that he can come in and he can catch bubble screens or he can catch perimeter screens and he can only run inside zones as a true freshman. He’s the best on the roster doing that. It is our job to make sure we put him in those positions to do that. I think it really all depends on exactly where their skill set and where their growth is at. A lot of those freshman come in and, from a protection standpoint, they struggle in protection. So sometimes that won’t always be the best situation to put them in those third down situations. Some of them are better at running the football, so we can put them in those situations. It really all depends on where they fit and where we feel like they’re at from a standpoint of their growth and development. Is it hard? Yes. It’s hard, but a lot of it is based off of their mental capacity and how hard they’re willing to work. What they put into it is what they’re going to get out of it.”

    On what he has worked on with Jabari Small in the offseason to take his game to the next level…

    “I think the first thing is just his body, more than anything. He entered the season last year, he was probably about 199, I think in that last game against Purdue. By the time we hit the middle of the spring this year, he had been as high as 213. The body weight and the mass and the armor that he has put on his body is just tremendous. He’s made a commitment to eating the right things. He’s made a commitment to putting more time in the weight room. I think you’re going to see a different body type than you saw last year on the field. The thing I see in the classroom, he has really been engaged. Everybody knows he’s been beat up and bruised up a little bit this spring, but one thing you can see is the growth and maturity in the system. He understands what, not only he’s supposed to do, he has a little bit better understanding of the receivers, the quarterbacks are looking for every play. He’s done a good job of watching guys in the NFL and seeing how they run the ball and the physicality that they run the ball with. I think that is going to help him going forward. So overall, I think it’s his body, more than anything, but also his knowledge of the game has increased as well.”

    *Transcript quotes courtesy of Tennessee Athletics*

    Ric Butler is a Knoxville based sports media personality who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 2017. Most recently, he served as the lead writer for the website of a local radio station. Ric also helped create and host a daily radio show called “The Blitz." Ric’s passion for sports, smooth vocal, and infectious personality have made him popular with both his peers and Vol Nation. Originally from Dallas, Ric didn’t grow up riding horses to school. But he did dream of the big city lights. When not chasing down the latest Tennessee story, Ric can be found watching the WWE, often attempting their moves in an embarrassing fashion.