NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vol nation’s eyes were on Joe Milton III as he opened up his senior season as Tennessee’s full time starting quarterback. Milton was solid in Tennessee’s 49-13 win over Virginia. Not bad but not great.
But Tennessee didn’t need or ask him to be great Saturday. The Vols leaned on their run game for 287 yards on 52 carries in the win including 234 yards on 38 carries from Tennessee’s three-headed monster at running back.
Jaylen Wright, Dylan Sampson and Jabari Small were Tennessee’s top three ball carriers a season ago and all generated buzz this offseason. They lived up to the hype in the opener.
“All three of those guys played extremely well,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said postgame. “Jaylen Wright I thought ran as physical as he has. The things that we saw in training camp I think you saw today. Doing a great job of hitting holes and running through arm tackles. Doing a good job on the third level too. Jabari Small did a fantastic job. D-Samp gets the four touchdowns. Super productive for him. I love what he’s doing.”
Small, the steady senior, was just that. The Memphis native didn’t do anything special in the win but churned his way to 67 yards on 13 carries.
Sampson jumped off the page to the stat watchers, totaling four total touchdowns — three rushing and one receiving — in the win. He was productive in his own right, totaling 52 yards on 13 carries but was also the beneficiary of finishing off Wright and Small drives.
“We all want to be the guy that gets in the end zone, makes the good plays which makes us even better,” Sampson said of the group. “But on the flip side of that, we’re not selfish or none of that. We help each other out. We celebrate with our brothers.
“Like I said before, you never know when you have to lean on your brother. Like today, sometimes they get tired and I have to go in for them, this and that. It’s just leaning on brothers and trusting each other but having that competition with Jabari and J-Wright is only making all of us compete at our best.”
Sampson vultured touchdowns but Wright was the star of the game. The junior totaled a game-high 115 yards on 12 carries. Recording just under 10 yards a carry wasn’t misleading for Wright. His longest run was just 21 yards as he consistently tormented the Cavaliers’ defense. When Wright was on the field, good things happened for Tennessee.
Against Virginia, Wright, Sampson and Small all were within one carry of one another. That was by design as Heupel looked to share the load amongst the trio.
“The strength of that room can never be one guy,” Heupel said. “All those guys are going to be extremely important. You can see that based on the number of touches all those guys got.”
Evenly dispersing carries against Virginia is all fine and dandy. But Wright is Tennessee’s most talented running back and when the games get tighter, it will be fascinating to see how those carries are dispersed.
Nevertheless, Tennessee has three talented running backs and the Vols could lean on that trio all season.
“We all put in work,” Wright said. “We all like brothers. We all gonna eat. I’ve been saying this. We the best group in the nation. It’s going to show and we’re going to keep showing it.”