The understandably guarded ways of how Tennessee football is conducting spring practice hasn’t been able to keep one key factor a secret: Dylan Sampson is having an all-star spring camp.
Sure, it may be in private, behind a tarp or inside an enclosed practice facility. However, that doesn’t matter. Sampson, who was considered Tennessee’s third-best option as a freshman last season, has made an impression on anyone that has had prying eyes directed towards the tailbacks.
“Really, it’s like night and day,” running backs coach Jerry Mack said. “From the (pass) protection standpoint, we all knew Dylan had to come along and continue to grow just on the protection standpoint. You see right now where his eyes start from a progression standpoint. The physicality that he does step with and the power he steps with because he’s put on some weight. All that stuff, getting thrown into the fire last year at those certain moments helped him develop and helped him grow.”
In other words, Sampson would have played even a larger role last season had he not been tasked with protecting one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, Hendon Hooker, who was leading one of the nation’s top offenses. Now, Sampson seems to have pass protection down pat. That should increase his role.
“When you look at him, he is probably way farther ahead than any guy we’ve had here going into year two to be honest with you,” Mack said.
That’s saying something as Tennessee football had experience last season, led by Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright. Those players, however, were groomed a bit more than Sampson, whose ability couldn’t keep him on the sideline last season. That has just made Sampson hungrier.
“Had a little bit more success in big moments than anything else and I think that is really a compliment to why you want to get those guys as much time as possible, like on the field early,” Mack said. “He didn’t come in in the spring either. So, for him to come in, process the information, learn a system, probably after eight or nine practices after fall camp last year we knew he was going to be a guy to help us at some point in time throughout the season.”
Sampson’s ascension doesn’t mean the Vols won’t lean on Small and/or Wright this season. Mack said Small has shown an increase in lower-body strength after being held out of spring camp with a shoulder injury. Wright hasn’t been in attendance for every practice due to various nicks and bruises. That’s a bit frustrating considering Mack said he wants Wright to run more between the tackles and not try to bounce runs outside. That’s the kind of practice that spring camp can provide.
Then, there’s the other two tailbacks who have seen the bulk of spring carries: former receiver Cameron Seldon and DeSean Bishop. Both are freshmen with plenty to learn. Both could be just carrying the ball to take up snaps, or either could be a star on the rise. For now, it’s a bit too early to tell, especially for Seldon.
“He’s doing a really good job right now, just from the standpoint of understanding what we want,” Mack said of Seldon. “You know, Cam’s baseline coming in was very, very low, and the beauty of him is he’s been able to come in the spring, learn what we’re going through and now what that’s going to do is help him as he progresses into the summer. From a baseline standpoint, he was at kind of the bottom of the spectrum and as you see each and every practice, he is getting a little bit better understanding what we are doing…I tell you one thing, DeSean has done a really good job of just getting his foot in the ground and going vertical. The velocity that he runs with, he is a downhill runner. He’s not a naturally big guy. He’s not a 230-pound kid, but one thing he really does, he runs the ball physically.
“I think you saw the same things in high school from him. You saw a guy that got downhill. He broke a lot of tackles. The knack for avoiding the big hits, he has a knack for doing that and that is really good for him.”
Mack hinted that there might be games this season in which Tennessee football relies a bit more on the running game. If that’s the case, Sampson certainly seems to be in line to be a big part of that transformation.