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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee sophomore running back Jabari Small goes through a drill earlier this spring inside the Anderson Training Center.

There was a two-week stretch in January when Tennessee running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray entered the NCAA transfer portal.

Which opened a gargantuan opportunity for Jabari Small.

"It's the next man up," Small said Wednesday night on a Zoom call. "Even with the last staff and with football in general, it's the next-man-up mentality. I wish those guys the best.

"They were great leaders for me, and they taught me a lot, but I've taken it as a challenge, and you don't want to run away from a challenge."

The 5-foot-11, 206-pounder out of Briarcrest Christian in Memphis was Tennessee's third-leading rusher last season as a freshman, but it was a distant third. Small amassed 117 yards on 26 carries, with his six carries for 48 yards in the 42-17 dismantling of a depleted Vanderbilt comprising a sizable chunk of his season total.

He did play in all 10 games, however, and the departure impacts of Chandler to North Carolina and Gray to Oklahoma have been lessened somewhat by how Small has attacked Josh Heupel's new offensive system. The Volunteers are scheduled to have their first spring scrimmage Thursday afternoon.

"You can just tell Jabari is one of those guys who really was born to play running back," new Vols running backs coach Jerry Mack said this week. "He has a really natural feel and has great instincts at the position, and you can tell that he was really well coached in high school and also by the previous staff. He has a natural feel for that position right now.

"He's disciplined. He's focused. He understands protections right now, and he's just been extremely impressive to me and to everyone else out on that field the way he handles his business and goes about his business. He takes care of it like a pro."

Small is the son of former Ole Miss receiver Eddie Small, who played for the Rebels from 1990-93, but running back has always been his position of choice due to his vision and his continuing goal of never getting tackled by the first defender.

With spring practice essentially at the midway mark for the Vols, Small said he has used this time to work on pass protection and further getting accustomed to the speed of the game. If he is indeed Tennessee's starting running back on Sept. 4 against Bowling Green, he plans to have a lot of fun that Saturday and on the weekends that follow.

"I feel like this offense is great for anybody," Small said. "It's very fast, and our receivers are split out wide, which gives us a lot of vertical, open seams. This offensive could help any running back, receiver or quarterback.

"It's just a great offense to be in all around."

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

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