Tennessee freshman running backs Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson’s importance to the 2022 Vols skyrocketed before fall practice even began.
After losing two running backs to the transfer portal, Tennessee lacked running back depth entering the season. Then Len’Neth Whitehead — one of three returning scholarship running backs — underwent season ending surgery before the season even began.
Even after adding transfer Lyn-J Dixon earlier this week, Williams-Thomas and Sampson remained right behind Jabari Small as an injury kept Jaylen Wright from working in team drills.
The pair has impressed on the practice field to date and Tennessee coach Josh Heupel praised both following the Vols’ first scrimmage of fall camp.
“Without going back to watch the tape, really pleased with how they functioned and played,” Heupel said.
Sampson wasn’t an early enrollee but has quickly earned his coach’s trust with his work ethic and understanding of the offense during fall practice.
“Those two guys just in training camp, obviously it’s Dylan’s first time working with us in a lot of situations,” Heupel said. “He’s grabbed on to playing and competing at this level, understanding how to function and operate within our offensive system. Does a great job delivering blocks and is a willing blocker too. Really pleased with the progress he’s made.”
Tennessee’s running backs struggled in pass protection a season ago. If Sampson continues to grow in understanding his pass protection assignments, which is often a struggle for freshmen, then he’ll have an excellent opportunity to earn a role on the 2022 Vols.
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The Geismar, Louisiana native clocked at 22.5 mph earlier this offseason and shines as pass catcher. Becoming a competent pass protector would give Sampson a great case as a third down back.
Williams-Thomas early enrolled in January and got to dip his toes in the water during spring practice. The four-star recruit’s improved his game from spring to fall practice, pleasing his new head coach in the process.
“Justin’s come back a much different football player than he was as he finished spring ball,” Heupel said. “I think you guys have heard me through the summer and even after the spring game. We talked about there’s a lot of time before we get to training camp. He’s taken advantage of that time. (He’s) Done a better job of pass pro(tection), done a better job with his pad level on contact, done a better job with trading his keys and making the right cuts.”
The 6-foot, 210 pound Williams-Thomas gives Tennessee physicality that the rest of the running back room does not possess. Heupel commented on Tennessee’s need to get better on third-and-short this season. Williams-Thomas becoming a reliable physical back could go a long way.