KNOXVILLE - Butch Jones may or may not have a future in politics after his years as a football coach end, but Tennessee's third-year coach has demonstrated his campaigning skills on a couple of occasions since the Volunteers lost at Alabama on Saturday.
The subject of Jones's lobbying has been Jalen Hurd, the sophomore running back he feels isn't getting enough attention on the national level.
In his postgame meeting with the media in Tuscaloosa, Jones said Hurd, who had just run for 92 yards on 18 carries against the SEC's saltiest run defense, deserves to be in any conversation about the nation's top running backs.
Monday, he took a simple question about Tennessee's running game and again stated his case for Hurd.
"I'm going to continually talk about it: I think Jalen Hurd is one of the best backs in the country," he said. "I don't think he's getting the recognition that he deserves."
One can't fault Jones for going to bat for one of his players, but are the coach's claims legitimate?
Tennessee's 3-4 record doesn't help Hurd, and neither does the SEC's strength at running back this season.
Hurd is sixth in the conference in rushing at 94.9 yards per game, behind the following running backs:
> LSU's Leonard Fournette, currently the heavy favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, averages 193 yards per game.
> Alabama's Derrick Henry has 622 yards in his last four games, including 143 against the Vols.
> Nick Chubb broke Georgia's program record, one held by Herschel Walker, with 13 straight 100-yard games, but he was lost for the season to a gruesome knee injury he suffered on the first play against Tennessee.
> Alex Collins ran for 154 yards when Arkansas won at Tennessee and averages 112 yards per game as he zeros in on a third straight 1,000-yard season.
> Auburn's Peyton Barber trails only Fournette (15) and Henry (14) with 12 touchdown runs this season.
Obviously the Vols view Hurd as one of their star players, and, not surprisingly, his teammates share Jones's lofty view of the 6-foot-2, 240-pound former five-star recruit.
"I definitely agree with that," wide receiver Josh Malone said. "Jalen's a great back. He does a lot for the team. He's a hard worker just like everybody else out there, and he's definitely one of the top backs in the nation.
"Honestly I really don't think he cares about it. I know as a group, or just as a team, that we're just focusing on winning. Whatever happens on the outside happens on the outside."
As a freshman, Hurd ran for 899 yards and five touchdowns despite operating behind the SEC's worst offensive line and missing most of three games with injuries.
This season, he's at 664 yards through seven games with a per-carry average of 4.6 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.
With the friendly run defenses of Kentucky (78th nationally), South Carolina (102nd) and North Texas (122nd) still left on the schedule, Hurd should crack the 1,000-yard mark if he remains healthy for the last five games of the season.
"He's playing motivated. He's running hard," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "You saw it at the end of the second quarter: He had a big run to get us in field-goal range. He's playing hard, he's getting the dirty yards when we need it and he's breaking off the big runs we need as well, so we really like having him as a part of our offense.
"National attention is national attention. It doesn't really affect play on Saturday. Honestly, as a team, we don't really buy into that. We're just here to play the game of football and trust in our jobs. Jalen understands that. He's a team player, and he understands his attention will come, but he buys into what he needs to do to make this team better."
Jones believes Hurd's ability to get yards on his own and after contact make him a special running back, the kind that deserves more attention than he's currently receiving.
"You always talk about when you're evaluating a running back," he said, "does he get what the play is just blocked for, or does he get the yards after contact? Does he have the ability to make somebody miss?
"You can have a 1,000-yard rusher, and those plays are blocked to (produce) a 1,000-yard rusher. Does he get the extra yards? Does he get the hard-earned yards? I think Jalen has done a phenomenal job all year.
"He had 92 hard-earned yards Saturday against one of the premier defenses in the country. We're going to need his efforts down the road. I think Jalen Hurd needs to start being in the conversation of elite running backs."
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