UT Vols' Hurd back to hard-running form

photo Tennessee's Jalen Hurd (1) escapes the tackle of Alabama's Cyrus Jones (5).

KNOXVILLE - Jalen Hurd was back to his old self.

Well, the self he was about a month ago.

As the Tennessee tailback did during a 119-yard performance at Georgia in late September, Hurd seemed to be running with extra verve against Alabama last week, and the freshman finished the game against the Crimson Tide with 86 yards on 22 touches.

"I saw you guys quoted him saying he was angry. I don't know," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said after Wednesday's practice. "He got in there and ran hard. Jalen runs hard every day, but I think in the big games like that, you just want to step your game up another level.

"Obviously when you're competing against another backfield like they have, you want to step up to the occasion and kind of compete and see who's got the best group. Hopefully we continue that throughout these next four games, and obviously this week's another big challenge for us."

At least on paper, it seems to be an easier one for Hurd and the Vols, who face a South Carolina defense that is last in the SEC in stopping the run and allows 208 yards per game.

Tennessee's offense ought to carry some confidence to Columbia, S.C., after snapping a two-game touchdown-less spell against SEC teams. The Vols gained 383 yards and racked up six plays of 20-plus yards against Alabama after having just seven such big plays in the previous three games.

"It was definitely important," Hurd said after Tuesday's practice, "to show everybody what we can do and most importantly prove to us as a team that we can do that and we have playmakers and we can make those big plays."

Tennessee ran for 181 yards against Alabama with Josh Dobbs going all but two series at quarterback, and the 43 rushing attempts were easily the most the Vols have had in the five games against SEC opponents and Oklahoma. Tennessee threw 39 or more passes against Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida, and the 28 rushes against Ole Miss were a season low.

The Vols netted zero yards rushing against the Rebels.

Hurd's first seven carries against Alabama went for 37 yards.

"We treat it like any other game when we go out there and try to play our hearts out," he said. "But Bama, there was something in the air about that night that made it special, just because it was Bama. We went out and really fought."

Hurd was slowed against Florida and limited to two carries against UT-Chattanooga by a shoulder injury, but he showed no effects of the problem against Alabama even after battling an illness earlier in the week.

"Jalen is Jalen," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said after the game. "On the bus over to the Anderson Training Center for walk-through, I go sit with him on the bus and say, 'We've got to go, man. Let's go.' He looks at me and says, 'Just give me the ball, Coach,' then goes back to sleep on his ride over.

"That's the poise, that's the confidence that he has."

Hurd's performance wasn't perfect, and even though he had a couple of key blocks in pass protection on Dobbs' two touchdown passes, both Hurd and Gillespie acknowledged there were times he didn't pick up some important yards.

On Tennessee's second possession, Hurd took a swing pass from quarterback Nathan Peterman on third-and-3 and was forced out of bounds less than a yard short of the first down, and the Vols had to punt.

In the red zone just before halftime, Hurd picked up 5 yards on second-and-6, and linebacker A.J. Johnson was stuffed for no gain on the next play as Tennessee debuted its "Beast" package and ultimately settled for a field goal.

"A running back should never allow it to be third-and-1," Gillespie said. "We should never allow it to be fourth-and-1 after we've just touched the ball. Those are the small things that obviously I'm glad to hear he's echoing those same thoughts, because there are a lot of yards he did leave out there."

Hurd had 27 touches against Georgia in what was his most productive game, and coming off a 22-touch game against Alabama, it's possible Hurd and Jones will have a similar pregame exchange.

"He doesn't come up to you and physically say, 'I want the ball more,' but he's a guy that has a look in his eye all the time," Gillespie said. "He does a really good job communicating on the sideline what he sees, but he is the kind of kid that says, 'Hey, let's get it going,' and talks to the offensive linemen on the sideline and talks to us.

"He does a good job during the week of going up to Coach Jake (offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian) and kind of talking about some different things we can do, so he's a confident kid and definitely the kind of kid you want to have around."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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