Exactly how healthy is Tennessee football at running back? Based on what running backs coach Jerry Mack said happened at practice Tuesday, you could walk away with completely different answers.
Starting running back Jabari Small went down on the second play from scrimmage in the Vols’ win against the Akron Zips. That left Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson as the feature back.
Given the fact that Wright was held out of the first half of fall camp due to injury along with Len’Neth Whitehead’s season-ending injury, that created legitimate concern. However, Mack said they were all full-go Tuesday.
“Right now, we are all available and ready for practice,” Mack said at a Tuesday press conference. “Everybody was out there today, full-speed and full-go, guys looked really good.”
Okay, so everything’s fine, right? Well, no. Despite everybody being out there Tuesday, Mack alluded to a level of experimentation that you don’t do if you’re 100 percent.
Specifically, tight end Princeton Fant took on some reps at running back. Mack said Fant looked good playing the position, and he did play it once before under Jeremy Pruitt.
“Just kind of getting him ready and always having an emergency guy,” he said. You’ve always got to have a contingency plan for anything that may happen.”
Sorry, but usually your emergency guys are backup running backs. If a starting tight end is moving over to help out, then the Vols probably have issues.
Mack added to the confusion by noting that the Vols did focus on how many reps they were giving each back. They were having to be careful in certain situations.
“A couple of them, we just have to be smart with how we rep them,” he said. “Some of those injuries and things that happened in the game, just bumps and bruises, wear and tear throughout the course of the game.”
Does this sound like a unit that is 100 percent ready to go for the Florida Gators? Maybe it is. Josh Heupel was mum on the situation Monday, but he seemed confident about Small’s status at halftime of Saturday.
It could be possible that Tennessee football is employing a bit of gamesmanship to keep Florida off-balance. That doesn’t ever seem like a foolproof method.
As far as managing the different backs on the roster, Mack said the coaches have a solid plan in rotating the backs. He said situations like last year, like the Tiyon Evans injury, allowed them to be ready for this.
“We have been through this battle before, as far as rotating guys, making sure we do a great job of prepping guys throughout the week,” he said. “A big part of that is how we go about prepping them as far as in the meetings and on the practice field.”
There’s reason to believe that part. Tennessee football didn’t seem to miss a beat when Evans went down last year, as Small and Wright emerged almost immediately.
The best news for the Vols is that Mack said Small was able to do everything in practice Tuesday. He said they didn’t have to limit him due to his health but that it was about the workload.
“That is no different than what we normally do during the course of the week,” he said. “We are always monitoring those guys, working with our GPS system that we have on those guys to make sure that we are not overworking them so they can be prepared.”
Fant getting action at running back, though is a bit of a question. The only way to explain that is if Tennessee football plans to use Jacob Warren at tight end. Nobody will be sure of Small’s health until Saturday.