Tennessee Vols' Hurd handling the hype

Tennessee Vols' Hurd handling the hype

August 3rd, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Jalen Hurd, the crown jewel of Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class, is focused on improvement.

Photo by Photo: Patrick Brown

KNOXVILLE - In a recruiting class bearing the heavy weight of lofty expectations, the bar is set highest for Jalen Hurd.

And it's not because the Tennessee freshman tailback stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall.

Long the crown jewel of the Volunteers' 2014 recruiting class -- receiver Josh Malone, a fellow five-star prospect, nabbed part of that title when he committed -- Hurd is expected to come in and make a large impact immediately for Tennessee.

Hurd, though, says he really doesn't pay that much mind.

"I love Tennessee, and I love the fans," he said during his media debut after Saturday's practice. "I grew up here. I just want to give everybody what they expect me to do."

Many expect too much, quite frankly.

Hurd's gaudy junior season in 2012 -- he ran for a Tennessee state-record 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns in leading Hendersonville's Beech High School to a state championship -- greatly raised his recruiting profile and had the likes of Alabama and Ohio State after him.

The home-state Vols didn't jump into the fray until Butch Jones replaced Derek Dooley as Tennessee's coach.

Twelve months later, Hurd was making his debut on the practice field with the Vols for spring practice earlier this year with as much hype and anticipation as any Tennessee freshman since maybe Eric Berry.

Jones, though, said Hurd largely has remained immune to the rock-star status he's gained before his first collegiate carry.

"He does, and that comes with he's been used to having those expectations placed upon him since he was probably in the 10th and ninth grade," the coach said. "He's used to those, but it's how you manage those expectations. It's how they drive you each and every day, and it's not getting caught up in the clutter and the distractions.

"I said in the introductory press conference for the start of the season: We have to be careful that we don't crown these individuals. They're still 17- and 18-year-old kids working to be young adults. They've never played one snap in a college football game right now. We have to be careful that we don't, as coaches, put a lot on their table early."

The Vols didn't necessarily take their own advice to heart with Hurd, and Jones admitted part of the burden of shielding Hurd from the hype falls on him.

That explains why Hurd is a typical target for Jones' over-the-microphone verbal jabs in practice, like when the coach reminded him during a punt drill Saturday that both of Alabama's top two tailbacks started their careers on special teams.

"It's part of my job," Jones said. "The great thing with Jalen is he understands that. He's very grounded. He's very humbled. It doesn't faze him. We tried early on in winter strength and conditioning to break him mentally, and he's one of those individuals, he comes every day and he's the same person every day. Jalen Hurd has been consistent every day."

Jones hasn't been afraid to praise Hurd for what he's done since arriving in Knoxville in January, and he's said multiple times through the offseason that the freshman will have a big role for the Vols in 2014.

For Hurd, arriving and enrolling early was the best way to prepare for it.

"Getting here was definitely something that I needed to do," he said, "and I'm really glad that I did it."

It's widely forgotten that Hurd will play his first game in more than two years when the Vols open the season against Utah State. He missed all but one game of his senior season after hurting his shoulder in Beech's season opener and undergoing surgery to be ready in time to start his Tennessee career.

For Hurd, the focus is on the little things. As he showed in Tennessee's first spring scrimmage, he has a unique blend of speed and burst at the second level for a 6-foot-3, 221-pound back. It's the details, particularly pass protection and conditioning, that have demanded his focus.

"Running is natural. It's a natural thing," Hurd said. "I've been running the ball since I was 6 years old. Just like any running back that comes in, they naturally can run the ball, but pass-blocking is a little different.

"It takes a little time to get it, so I'm glad that I've gotten into the routine and gotten that down."

In both 2010 (South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Auburn's Michael Dyer) and 2012 (Georgia's Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon), the two tailbacks to make the SEC's All-Freshman team ran for more than 1,000 yards, and Alex Collins did it for Arkansas last season.

Fair or not, that may be the bar that's been externally set for Hurd.

"I've definitely seen a lot of guys do that, but that's not really my main goal," he said. "I definitely want to run for a lot of yards, but I want to help my team win. That's the most important thing."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.