Vols have to run the football for Heupel's offense to be effective

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee running back Tiyon Evans, pictured, is eager to compete for playing time with sophomore Jabari Small and redshirt freshman Dee Beckwith.

For all the intrigue and speculation regarding who will emerge in Tennessee's four-man quarterback competition, there is another fairly significant question that could determine whether head coach Josh Heupel's offense is a success during his first season in Knoxville.

Can the Volunteers develop a formidable rushing attack?

"We're going to have to run the football. It's the SEC," sophomore running back Jabari Small said this past week. "We're going to play fast, and we're going to run the football a lot - a lot of vertical running, so it will give me a chance to get downhill and show my skill set."

Small is Tennessee's top returning rusher - he carried just 26 times for 117 yards last season - after the NCAA transfer portal exits earlier this year of Eric Gray to Oklahoma and Ty Chandler to North Carolina. Redshirt freshman Dee Beckwith is the only other returning back possessing totals from a year ago, having carried three times for 25 yards in three games.

Tee Hodge, Antonio Malone, Fred Orr, Marcus Pierce and Len'Neth Whitehead are returning rushers who went without a carry last season, while Tiyon Evans and Jaylen Wright are the newcomers.

"It's an inexperienced group, but it's a group that we really like," Heupel said. "We like the talent inside of that room and the ability for them to play a part in what we're doing. In spring ball, they grew in terms of protections, which is a pivotal part of being able to play that guy on every down.

"Those guys have gotten better with ball security, and there is just a great competition there."

Evans has entered the competition by way of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, where he was ranked the No. 1 junior-college running back prospect in the 2021 signing class by 247Sports.com. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, however, junior colleges did not play last fall.

"There will always be competition in the backfield," Evans said. "Coaches have told us that during game week there are going to be two starters, and that every week won't be the same two starters. It will go by practice every week."

Gray's 772 yards and 4.9 yards per carry may have been the brightest aspect to Tennessee's 3-7 debacle last season. The Vols averaged 141.5 rushing yards per game and allowed 141.6, so their struggles were far more the result of a 61.1-yard deficit in passing yards per contest and a negative turnover ratio.

New defensive coordinator Tim Banks realizes the Vols must be stout up front on his side of the ball - "I think that's the million-dollar question, and that's what we're going to work toward," he said - to handle some of the Southeastern Conference's top ground games, while offensive coordinator Alex Golesh knows Heupel's fast-paced attack won't go far without balance.

And Small, who has switched from jersey No. 20 to No. 2, is a good place to start.

"Jabari didn't have a ton of game film," Golesh said. "From the moment I met Jabari, maturity would be the word - mature in so many ways in terms of how he carries himself and how he handles himself and his approach to the way he works. He's got mountains to climb in terms of leadership and those types of things, and I think it's really hard to lead when you haven't played a ton.

"I think it's hard to have confidence when you haven't physically shown it. I think preparation breeds confidence, and he's certainly prepared that way, but it's unique when the veteran of the group is a sophomore and a 19-year-old young man. He's a real SEC running back, and I'm excited to see him grow. It will be fun to watch."

Big blow up front?

Tennessee fifth-year senior offensive lineman K'Rojhn Calbert suffered a bicep injury last week in practice and could be lost for the season, Rivals.com reported this weekend.

The 6-foot-5, 325-pounder from McMinnville has played in 32 games for the Vols, which includes five starts at right tackle. Tennessee still has Darnell Wright and former walk-on Dayne Davis as primary tackle candidates, as well as the flexibility of Cade Mays, who has played all five positions across the front.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.