Tennessee preseason preview: Running backs

Tennessee preseason preview: Running backs

July 24th, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

From left, Tennessee running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd sign autographs for fans at the UT Fan Day during the Orange/White Spring Football Game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on April 16. The two will headline the Volunteers' running game this season.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

1,130: Yards Jalen Hurd actually needs to become Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher. The program’s official record book credits current leader Travis Henry with 3,078 yards, but it doesn’t include Henry’s bowl game stats. The NCAA didn’t start counting bowl stats until 2002, and Tennessee has yet to update its numbers to put every player on a level playing field. Hurd enters his junior season with 2,187 rushing yards and ran for 1,288 in 2015, so his place in history is within reach.

7.01: Yards per touch on offense for Alvin Kamara last season. The dynamic running back ran for 698 yards on 107 carries and turned 34 catches into 291 yards. Kamara totaled 11 touchdowns during his debut season.

2,467: Combined total offense for Hurd and Kamara last season. The duo combined to score 24 touchdowns (19 rushing, five receiving), too.

STAR POWER

The Volunteers likely wouldn't trade their running back tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara for anyone else's. The two former five-star prospects have lived up to their recruiting billing and now enter what could be the final college seasons for both as the primary staples for Tennessee's offense. Both are in line for another productive season.

The offseason focus for the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Hurd has been improving his explosiveness. There's no doubting his toughness and power, but Hurd wants to become more of a breakaway runner capable of dodging and outrunning defenders beyond the line of scrimmage. Hurd averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season, and his longest run was a 48-yarder against Vanderbilt.

Tennessee pitched an increased role to Kamara to entice him to return instead of bolting for the NFL draft. The Vols were guilty at times last season of not getting Kamara enough touches or using his game-breaking skills incorrectly. There should be no mystery anymore.

PROMISING PROSPECTS

With the Vols taking a cautious approach with Hurd and Kamara during the spring, John Kelly got all the work he could handle, and the sophomore from Michigan made much of it.

The 5-9, 212-pound Kelly showed a nice blend of power and speed. He may not be an elite back like Hurd and Kamara, but he is an SEC-level runner capable of getting the job done. Tennessee's coaches are confident they have three running backs they can trust.

Kelly also helped the Vols' kickoff coverage unit last season — remember the key fumble he forced to ignite the comeback against Georgia? — and could do so again in 2016.

As a freshman Kelly had 40 carries in five games, and whether or not he matches that total in 2016, Tennessee's backfield could have a massive void to fill next spring if Hurd and Kamara opt for the NFL.

FRESH FACES

The carries not gobbled up by Hurd, Kamara and Kelly could fall to freshman Carlin Fils-aime, a speedster who had a highlight-reel senior season at Naples High School in Florida.

During his 2015 season, the 5-11, 175-pounder racked up 2,041 all-purpose yards (1,505 rushing, 375 receiving and 161 on kickoff returns), scored 28 touchdowns and averaged 9.5 yards per touch.

As he adds strength and weight, Fils-aime could help on special teams while getting minimal carries — No. 4 running back Joe Young had 19 last season — in mop-up duty.

With just four scholarship running backs, Tennessee scooped up late qualifier Jeremy Lewis this month. Lewis will begin his career as a walk-on, provide a little extra depth this season and further competition next spring. He ran for more than 3,000 yards and scored 51 touchdowns during his senior season of high school ball in Oklahoma.

STRONG SUITS

The backfield's strengths are fairly apparent. Hurd and Kamara form an excellent one-two punch, and their styles complement each other very well. Hurd is the back Tennessee can use to wear down defenses. Kamara is a big play waiting to happen.

The duo combined for 440 carries or catches last season in Tennessee's 988 offensive plays, so on 44.5 percent of the plays Hurd or Kamara touched the ball.

It's difficult to envision Tennessee veering away from its two staples.

QUESTION MARKS

In the spring Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord declined to reveal exactly how Kamara's role would change in 2016. Both backs occasionally lined up in the slot in spring. Kamara could have an increased role in the return game, too, though the Vols return the statistical leaders in kickoff (Evan Berry) and punt (Cameron Sutton) returns from last season.

As evidenced by his offseason work, Hurd clearly believes he has yet to reach his ceiling. Motivation never has been an issue, and there are obvious incentives for him to chase in what could be his final season. Beyond a marquee program record, Hurd wants to prove he belongs among the elite group of running backs in college football this season.

The main question mark with any running back, however, is durability, and the Vols will need their two playmakers to avoid significant injuries and remain relatively healthy to reach the heights for which they're aiming this season.


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