Vols to have full stable of running backs against Gators

Tennessee photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee junior running Jabari Small, shown here in the season opener against Ball State, was injured after two plays in last Saturday night’s 63-6 rout of Akron but practiced Tuesday.

Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel occasionally takes great pleasure in being vague about player injuries during game-week news conferences.

On Tuesday, running backs coach Jerry Mack hit a pinch-hit home run for the media and Volunteers fans alike when asked about the status of junior Jabari Small. Tennessee's top rusher last season suffered an upper-body injury to his right side on the second play from scrimmage of last Saturday night's 63-6 throttling of Akron and did not return.

"He was able to do everything," Mack said. "He finished the entire practice -- 21 or 22 periods, whatever we had. He did every part of practice, and we didn't have to limit him because of his health.

"It was more about being smart with the workload."

The No. 11 Vols host No. 20 Florida on Saturday, and Mack said his contingent of Small, sophomore Jaylen Wright, and freshmen Dylan Sampson and Justin Williams-Thomas are "full-speed, full-go." He added that sixth-year senior tight end Princeton Fant worked Tuesday as an emergency back.

"He alternated time between tight end and running back and looked pretty good," Mack said.

Tennessee is averaging a respectable 182.3 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry through three games, but the Vols were more effective last season, when they posted 217.3 yards a contest and 4.9 per rush. Wright missed most of preseason camp but has led Tennessee in each game, rushing 13 times for 88 yards against Ball State, nine times for 47 yards at Pittsburgh and 23 times for 96 yards against Akron.

"Jaylen has done a really good job of trying to change his running style," Mack said. "We talk about a lot of vertical runs and getting the ball more downhill and being a lot more successful doing that. You can see he's trying to be a lot more physical, breaking tackles and doing some things you didn't always see last year because of his youth and because he just kind of didn't know."

Emotional at Pitt

Tuesday marked the first time that fifth-year senior safety Trevon Flowers met with the media since Tennessee's overtime win at Pittsburgh, when Flowers fumbled a punt and got hurdled by a Panthers tight end but also collected an interception and an overtime sack.

"That's probably the most emotional game I've ever been in," Flowers said. "I've played baseball before, and you make an error, but the ball is going to come right back at you. I've been in plenty of situations before when I've had to bounce back and can't hang my head.

"I'm used to it. I've been doing it my whole life."

'Three starters'

Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley had been an effective linebacker tandem through two games, but defensive coordinator Tim Banks and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary switched things up last weekend by starting Beasley and Juwan Mitchell, who made his season debut.

"They're all mature," Jean-Mary said. "When you get to a program and you build it the way we want to have it built, every week should be a fight to see who's going to be a starter. We look at it like we have three starters.

"For us to be successful, all three of those guys are going to have to play like starters."

Mitchell, who played for the first time since last season's game at Florida, was credited with a tackle and a quarterback hurry.

"For someone who hasn't played in almost a full calendar year, I thought he did a really good job of getting lined up, getting the defense aligned and the communication part, which is what we were a little nervous about," Jean-Mary said. "He made some plays. He was a little out of control at times, but we were pleased, and we think the best is yet to come."

Odds and ends

Vols redshirt sophomore receiver Jimmy Calloway has been suspended for the first half of the Florida game as a result of his ejection for throwing punches during the third quarter last Saturday. ... Florida and Tennessee are meeting as ranked teams, something they did annually from 1990 through 2007 but haven't since 2017. ... In Oklahoma's 45-31 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season, Heupel was quarterbacks coach of the Sooners and current Gators coach Billy Napier was receivers coach of the Crimson Tide.


Tennessee’s 2023 football schedule was revealed Tuesday night:

Sept. 2 — Virginia (Nashville)


Sept. 16 — at Florida

Sept. 23 — UTSA


Oct. 7 — Open

Oct. 14 — TEXAS A&M

Oct. 21 — at Alabama

Oct. 28 — at Kentucky

Nov. 4 — UCONN

Nov. 11 — at Missouri

Nov. 18 — GEORGIA


Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.