published Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Hurd 'hungry' as Tennessee Vols' debut nears

Touted Tennessee freshman running back Jalen Hurd has extra drive to play when the Vols open next Sunday.
Touted Tennessee freshman running back Jalen Hurd has extra drive to play when the Vols open next Sunday.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — When Jalen Hurd takes the field in his Tennessee debut as the Volunteers open the season against Utah State a week from tonight, it will end a 371-day wait.

It's been that long -- and probably felt even longer to the freshman tailback -- since Hurd's last football game.

Since he elected to have surgery on his shoulder after being injured in the first game of his senior season at Beech High School outside of Nashville, Hurd has had next Sunday night in the back of his mind.

The five-star recruit's anticipation has increased as his much awaited debut has neared.

"You have to think about the game every single day," the 6-foot-3, 227-pound running back said this past week. "Every single time I wake up, I'm thinking about Utah State and thinking about the season. You've got to go into that with every practice, that you know you're getting one day closer.

"You've got to get your technique right, you've got to finish long runs and do the little things."

Marlin Lane likely will start the season in Tennessee's backfield, but it probably won't take long for Hurd to get on the field for the Vols. Coach Butch Jones has leaned more on the running game throughout his seven-year coaching career. Even though there's a new offensive line and improved talent in the pass game, that may not change.

How the carries shake out between Lane and Hurd will depend on which one of the backs has the hot hand.

Coaches have been pleased with how Hurd has progressed since spring practice while handling the aura of hype and expectations circling him before his first carry or catch for the Vols.

"He goes with the flow and is a pretty humble guy, too," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "He doesn't walk around with a cockiness or an attitude. He walks around hungry.

"Maybe that five-star status has created an expectation that he feels he needs to live up to."

When he got to Tennessee, the focus for Hurd became the details, particularly with pass protection. He set the state rushing record and scored 43 rushing touchdowns as a junior in 2012, but he was always the best player on the field. Stepping up a level meant Hurd had to improve the details of his game and his conditioning, much like any freshman.

"He's made a lot of progress," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said Friday. "He's still making some mental assignments he has to clean up here as we're starting to put in some game-plan stuff. He's leaps and bounds from where he was from a conditioning standpoint in the spring."

It's encouraging for Tennessee's staff that Hurd understands the importance of those details to being successful.

"Pass protection is not only the focus, it's one of the most important things in college football as a running back," he said. "Of course we're runners -- that's why we got recruited -- but Coach Gillespie, he stresses protectors, finishers and technicians every single day. Two of those are mostly pass-protecting.

"You need to be a technician, not only in pass pro, but doing the little things -- carrying out your play-fakes, stuff like that -- and you always need to protect the quarterback."

As humblly as multiple coaches, including Jones, have said Hurd carries himself, he still feels he's got some proving to do.

Asked earlier this month about the perception he's too tall to be an effective running back, Hurd sharply replied, "Come watch me play."

In interview settings, Hurd is polished and exudes confidence, while on the field he can run effectively between the tackles for the tough yards or break big plays out in the open field, and he doesn't shy away from contact.

"I really think we've grown the most as a team, not only just me," Hurd said. "I think I've grown closer to my teammates. I've got a better connection with them, and I feel like the offense is clicking. I think we're communicating a lot better."

Just how good will Hurd be right away, though?

The long wait almost over, he'll start answering that question in a week's time.

"I've noticed an intensity in his approach," Bajakian said. "He doesn't say a ton, but he pays attention very closely and really works to learn the game, learn the schemes, learn the techniques and, in that regard, shows the maturity of a veteran. It's good to see."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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