Merits and surrounding personnel are always factors when determining the success of a player at a particular position. The single-season leading rusher for Tennessee football is Travis Stephens, who ran for 1,464 yards in 2001. He broke Jay Graham’s 1995 record of 1,438 yards.
What did those two running backs have in common? They were running behind a veteran offensive line, their quarterback returned, and they were the only proven back in the system. If you take those two things into account, Jabari Small is primed and ready to challenge them this year.
Small was already expected to be Tennessee football’s feature back entering his junior year. He rushed for 796 yards and nine touchdowns on 141 carries last year. However, in the offseason, he’s put on about 15 pounds, going from around 200 to around 215.
That’s enough to make him more of a feature back, and Jerry Mack noted he’d be capable of 20 to 25 carries this year. Small also has more experience. It’s his second year as a starter in this system and his third year playing college ball in general.
The offensive line has four starters back and seven of its eight rotational players. Hendon Hooker returns to quarterback, and honestly, unlike Peyton Manning in 1995 or Casey Clausen in 2001, he should help Small even more by being a rushing threat on his own.
What really stands out, though, is the recent injuries. Tennessee football lost Len’Neth Whitehead for the season. They added Clemson Tigers transfer Lyn-J Dixon to offset him. However, Dixon is dealing with an injury of his own right now. Jaylen Wright has also been banged up.
Wright and Dixon are the two all-purpose backs expected to spell Small. Whitehead was the power back. If the Vols enter the season with both of them banged up, the only other players to take the pressure off are two freshmen, Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson.
Williams-Thomas is more of a feature back, and Sampson is another all-purpose back. However, there are nuances that you have to pick up as a freshman. Wright didn’t really start playing until November rolled around last year anyway.
Taking that into account, not only does Small have all the help and the merits on his own to be better, but the coaches are going to rely on him more. He’ll have to get the bulk of the carries largely because of the lack of experience behind him.
Consider Stephens in 2001. He had a year to himself because Travis Henry graduated the year before, and Jamal Lewis had left early for the pros the year before that. They were all in the same class, and when Stephens got his chance, he set the record.
However, there were three new running backs behind Stephens who were freshmen that year in Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis, Derrick Tinsley and Corey Larkins. Phillip Fulmer could only rely on Stephens, though, due to lack of experience.
It was even a crazier case for Graham, who really was the only back in the system at the time. By the way, Jamal Lewis is third on the single-season list for his 1997 campaign. Once again, the Vols had no experienced running backs. Lewis was a freshman with Henry and Stephens but had more talent and picked up the offense faster.
Taking all this into account, Tennessee football arguably needs Small now as much as Hooker. Despite six running backs in the system, one is out for the season, and two more are dinged up. Those are the only non-freshmen outside of Small. Given how Josh Heupel’s system is built on the running backs, Small could make history.