The days of relying on one running back are over. However, if Tennessee has to choose, it has become apparent that Jaylen Wright is the guy.
Wright has 15 more carries and 212 more rushing yards than any other Vol tailback. Wright has carried the ball 80 times for 571 yards. Fellow tailback Jabari Small has toted the rock 65 times for 359 yards. As for the Vols’ most “dynamic” tailback, Dylan Sampson has 45 carries for 273 yards. However, there’s an argument to made that Wright is every bit as explosive as Sampson. Wright is averaging 7.1-yards per carry. Sampson is averaging 6.1-yards per run. Small is a bit behind at 5.5 yards per carry.
“The mindset more than anything else,” Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack said when asked what makes Wright so good after initial contact. “Jaylen always ran the ball with a chip on his shoulder. When he approaches the game, you can watch him in pregame. He’s very, very intense and he prepares very intense. You can see the reflection of it on the field. The way he attacks the game, the way he attacks the preparation, when he gets the ball, he’s kind of got that mindset, ‘I refuse to go down’.
“He doesn’t want to make the first guy bring him down. He’s done a lot better job this year I feel like of leg drive. You can see when he goes between the tackles, he’s getting his feet up on contact, running on small spaces. The last couple of years you would see guys bring him down with just a shoestring tackle and that no longer really happens.”
Tennessee had a strong group of tailbacks last season, led mostly by Small. However, the Vols seem to have an elite trio of running backs this season even though the names haven’t changed. In his sophomore season, Sampson is better adapted to the Vols’ offense so he can do more things. Wright is breaking those shoestring tackles that once brought him down. Small keeps plugging away. When did Mack realize he had something special?
“You could see the intensity that we were practicing with in the spring, you start to kind of carry over to the fall,” Mack said. “Then, all of sudden we get a couple of new bodies, healthier, more than anything else, really on both sides of the ball. Guys that weren’t available in the spring and we’d be having some battles out there. It’s like we always say, iron sharpens iron and now what you see is a reflection. Our run game is probably better just because our defense has gotten so much better, especially that defensive line unit.”
In other words, the Vols don’t have to score as many points with big chuck plays. Tennessee can now hold onto the ball on offense knowing the Vols’ defense won’t give up as many points as they might have last season. Tennessee’s running game will be tested this week. Alabama gives up just 104 yards rushing per game, which is third best in the SEC.
“If he continues to do a good job of being patient, he’s going to always have success no matter what defense we line up against,” Mack said.
Small began the 2022 season as the leader after an offseason of bulking up physically. Still Wright averaged six yards per carry while Small averaged 4.7-yards per rush. Tough running has certainly been a part of the Wright’s success.
“It builds a lot of confidence in the entire room and the entire team,” Mack said. “There was one specific situation last game where he tried to hurdle a guy. You can see that energy that he brought to the table.
“It ignited the entire offense.”