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Tennessee Football: Why the RB’s may be the best unit for the Vols

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It’s good to be Jerry Mack. The Tennessee running backs coach might have the Vols’ deepest unit when one considers experienced, returning players from last season.

The roles seem pretty clear for Tennessee’s top three tailbacks. Senior Jabari Small isn’t always health, but was good enough last season to lead the Vols with 157 carries. Junior Jaylen Wright, who is a bit bulked up from a stringent offseason regimen, led the Vols with 875 yards. Sophomore Dylan Sampson proved to be the most explosive Vol last season as he led all Vols with a 6.8-yard per carry average. And they’re all back. 

Then there’s freshmen Cameron Seldon, who was a spring practice standout and Khalifa Keith, who is slated to be the Vols’ power back and perhaps fullback.

“Right now I love the depth,” Mack said during a media availability on Tuesday. “First time since I’ve been here that we’ve had multiple backs that we got a lot of trust in as an offensive staff. You see obviously the Jay Wright and the Jabari and those guys have kind been staples in the offense the last few years. But like you said, Dylan Sampson continues to grow, continues to show that he can be a playmaker in this offense. 

“And I’m really impressed with the guys, the Cam Seldons of the world, the Khalifa Keiths. They’ve done a really good job of coming in here you in the summertime or spring when Cam was here. Just learning and adapted to what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to be on offense. So right now the depth is (in an) extremely good place”

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It could be difficult for Seldon and Keith to get many opportunities with the ball in their hands considering the trio of proven players in front of them. However, Mack seems high on the freshmen duo after seeing Seldon throughout the offseason and Keith in preseason camp.

As you watch Cam, as you watch Khalifa continue to grow, there are some differences as far as you know, how they go about handling their business,” Mack said. “Not only in the classroom, but also (on the) field right now. I think back to last year when you had Dylan Sampson, it was very apparent early when he got here that the way he processed information and the way he communicated, he was going to be a guy that found himself in a rotation sooner rather than later. Probably about the ninth practice during fall camp last year, we kind of realized, okay, Dylan Sampson can really help us.”

Of course none of those tailbacks mentioned above are going to be on the field nearly as much as they’d like if they can’t pass protect. Clearly, the quarterback in coach Josh Heupel’s offense is what makes the Vols go.

“I think growth is really the key word,” Mack said. “Not only just from when we started this year, but over the last few years. The mentality has changed dramatically. Those guys all knew that a couple years ago that was kind of the focal point that we needed to improve on as a running back room. 

“We let the team down in some aspects of not making sure that we were supposed to be as firm as we should be. They took it on themselves to make sure that physically they were supposed…to make sure that when they stepped on the field over the last couple years, they’ve been stout enough and strong enough to hold up in pass pro. And I really am impressed with the way they kind of attacked it.”

Sampson, regardless of position, had one of the best offseasons for the Vols per many sources. He could be a breakout player for the Vols now that he’s more in tune with the offense. That wasn’t necessarily the case last season. Still, he racked up 421 yards from scrimmage as a freshman in 2023. Other than an early season mistake in pass coverage, Sampson was stellar, according to Mack.

“He had that mistake against LSU last year and really never made another mistake after that from a pass-protection standpoint,  was very intentional about coming over, making sure he knew where his eyes were going to every week,” Mack said. “And I think now Jay Wright and Jabari, that’s one thing that they really take pride in. They take pride as a unit. We take pride as a unit into making sure that we know exactly what our responsibilities are every week. 

“Even if the quarterback may – or the center – may ID (a defense) wrong, whatever’s going on at that point in time, we’re able to come back and say, ‘Hey, we probably should’ve did X, Y, Z, coach, as opposed to that. And that’s just taking pride in your craft.”

The toughest challenge for Mack this season may be determining who gets the ball when. 

“We had a conversation today after (practice) on the practice field,” Mack said. “Jabari got caught in a situation where he probably could have did a little bit of extra to try to gain more yards. And just kind of making sure they understand, hey, ‘Stay calm. It’s going to come. You don’t have to force the big run. The big runs are gonna come.’

 “Our offensive line is really growing a lot over the last couple of weeks and they’re gonna create holes. They’re gonna create gashes within defenses that allow us to run through a hole so we don’t have to (do) extra, trying to do a little bit too much sometimes. I do think when you got competition, guys on your back as well. If you do try to get a little bit out of the framework of who you are and what you are, right now there’s another guy sitting behind you ready to come in and probably take that opportunity.”

Virginia certainly isn’t the best opponent that the Vols will face this season when it comes to stopping the run. However, they’re very experienced. The Cavaliers return their entire defensive line from last season. Still, they finished 71st in the nation in rushing defense after allowing 153 yards per game in 2022. Mack – at least publicly – has been wowed by the Cavs.

“I’m really impressed with how hard those guys play,” Mack said. “One thing about the University of Virginia, you can tell they were in a lot of games last year. You see the record (3-7) and people just assume that they were not a great football team, but there were spots and there were times where they showed flashes, especially in their front, defensively. 

“A lot of movement up front, a lot of stemming. They’ve got really good defensive ends. They do a good job pressing the pocket so that’s gonna be really important for us to make sure that, before we get out, we make sure there’s no extra trash hanging around the quarterback’s view, hanging around the quarterback for his vision. 

“We want to do a great job of ‘blowing things up’ as we use the term before we get out and actually get our pass route. At the second level, at the linebacker position, man, those guys move around, they fly around. We’re gonna see some different bodies probably than we saw in film in some certain spots, but I think the athletic ability is still there.”

As nice as that sounds, Mack is probably speaking a bit too glowingly about the Cavs, who the Vols should be able to handle up front as long as the interior of UT’s offensive line can cope without center Cooper Mays, who is not expected to play on Saturday in Nashville.

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