In no real surprise, Tennessee Football suffered its first loss of a starter to the NFL Draft. Jaylen Wright, the Vols feature running back this past year and a regular contributor the past two years, is leaving after three years on Rocky Top to take his talents to the pros.
Wright, after backing up Jabari Small in 2022, became the starter this past year and had 137 carries for 1,034 yards, 22 catches for 141 yards and four touchdowns. For his career, he had 368 carries for 2,297 yards, 30 catches for 171 yards and 18 touchdowns. He announced his decision to leave on Twitter.
Given how Josh Heupel has recruited running backs, Tennessee Football can withstand the loss of Wright. The Vols have Peyton Lewis, an elite four-star back, coming in. Khalifa Keith is a power back. Cam Seldon could get more carries next year, and Jabari Small can return in 2024.
However, to offset the production of Wright, who was an elite playmaker as well as the feature back, the pressure is on Dylan Sampson. For two years, now, we have heard about how Sampson has elite potential and can make big plays in open space. He has even drawn comparisons to Alvin Kamara.
That hasn’t proven to be the case yet. Remember, the hype behind Sampson is why Justin Williams-Thomas, a four-star back in UT’s 2022 recruiting class, entered the transfer portal after last year. It was very clear that Sampson would be the future star.
So far, though, Sampson has played sparingly. This past year, he had 86 carries for 471 yards, 17 catches for 175 yards and eight total touchdowns. For his career, he has 144 carries for 868 yards, 20 catches for 199 yards and 14 total touchdowns through two years.
That’s not bad production. Also, the athleticism to be great is there. However, his play has been marred by issues in pass protection and poor vision. Sampson can go from being effective to being a superstar, which he should be, by improving in those two areas.
If Sampson takes the next step on those two issues, he will be a dominant force for Tennessee Football in 2024. I would feel comfortable saying he and Nico Iamaleava could make up the best backfield in the nation. However, without that improvement, UT will feel the loss of Wright significantly.