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With spring portal season coming to an end, why did the Tennessee Vols choose to just watch from the sideline?

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The spring portal is about to sprint by Tennessee. The Vols are just fine with that.

As other schools scrambled to fill out a swiss-cheese roster, Tennessee decided it had done enough in the first transfer portal in January. No spring needed. The Vols have that luxury thanks to some pretty deft recruiting. They didn’t need to get desperate during the spring transfer portal period and offer an NIL deal to a player who might not contribute this season considering the condensed prep time before the Vols kick the season off against Chattanooga on Aug. 31.

Will the decision to be absent in the spring transfer portal haunt the Vols? If so, it will likely just come at one position. Fortunately, it’s been the most interchangeable on the field.

Former Tennessee tailbacks Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small, along with current Vol Dylan Sampson, gobbled up yards last season as if they were a seafood buffet. Now, however, two of those players are gone, both to the NFL. One made a wise decision. One did not.

Small and the Vols would be in line for another productive season had he decided to return to play for Tennessee in 2024. Small, along with Sampson, who is expected to be the Vols’ featured tailback this season, would have made for a formidable offensive backfield. Now, it’s just down to Sampson as far as Tennessee tailbacks with significant playing time.

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Tennessee has other tailbacks, such as Cameron Seldon and Khalifa Keith, that are expected to shoulder some of the load. However, Seldon was injured for the second half of spring practice after a season in which he was conspicuously absent. Seldon was the star of spring practice in 2023, but barely saw the field last fall. Why? 

Per a source at Tennessee, mistakes during games have been a problem for Seldon. There’s real concern that he may not have the right mindset to be the elite contributor that everyone expected last season. So what do the Vols do if Sampson is really good while Keith and Seldon are just okay? That vaunted passing game had better be rolling to open up the tackle box.

Tennessee could also get a boost from freshman Peyton Lewis, but there might be hesitancy to play someone who could endanger quarterback Nico Iamaleava with poor pass protection. That would also explain why the Vols didn’t go after a running back in the spring transfer portal. Would you buy an $8-million car with no insurance? That’s what Lewis is. However, he’s coming off of shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring practice.

If Lewis lives up to his billing, the Vols can have a solid, perhaps spectacular crew of running backs. However, that’s a big “if” with the season on the line. 

What happens if the Vols find themselves in a precarious position of having competent tailbacks in pass coverage, but average in actually running the football other than Sampson. How many times did Wright turn a loss into a gain, a short run into a respectable scamper or him just gash a defense all together? Will those runs be few and far between this fall?

There’s reason to believe in Heupel’s direction. He’s proven he can develop players, particularly at running back. Wright was one of three tailbacks that split the load in 2022. Then, he went from backup to star as one of the top tailbacks in the SEC, as judged statistically and where he was drafted in the NFL, which was first among all tailbacks from within the conference.

Why else should you have confidence in Heupel and his handling  of the running back position this season? Well, because you have to admit the Vols have been good when it comes to spending NIL funds. The Vols took eight transfers before the 2023 season and all contributed. A handful of them even became starters before last season began. That’s a pretty good track record.

Much like the salary cap in football, is a running back worth spending a pile of Nico-like NIL money on when they’re not nearly as valuable as a player like Iamaleava? Absolutely not. 

If Heupel wants to save his money for someone else, like a highly touted high school prospect or a player the Vols bring in midterm, that’s his call. Budgeting is the new task that coaches must address and there’s a good chance that the running backs available just weren’t worth what they were asking, at least in Heupel’s eyes.

Keeping the big picture in mind, do the Vols really need an outstanding running back or will a good one or two get to the Vols to a championship level this season? Much of that depends on Iamaleava and the Vols’ ability to be more explosive through the air.  However, with a nice crew of returning receivers and offensive linemen, the Vols should be just fine as long as all the tumblers match.

Running back would seem like the easy position to learn if there was a quick transition needed. However, Heupel doesn’t see it like that. Usually aggressive, Heupel decided not to go all in on a running back. He’s good with what he has. Is he right? We’ll see this fall.

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