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Rice Athletics photo / Former Rice offensive coordinator Jerry Mack, shown last year with Owls quarterback Jovoni Johnson, is Tennessee's new running backs coach and has the task of rebuilding a position that lost Ty Chandler and Eric Gray to the NCAA transfer portal.

Should new Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel ever need to bounce an idea or question off somebody else with head-coaching experience, he just needs to head to the running backs room.

New running backs coach Jerry Mack was North Carolina Central's head coach from 2014-17, guiding the Eagles to a 31-15 record and to at least a share of three consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships. Mack was named HBCU national coach of the year by two separate voting entities in 2016, when the Eagles finished the regular season 9-3 overall, 8-0 in the MEAC and No. 18 in the FCS coaches poll.

Mack continues to savor that four-year stint as he enters his first job in the Southeastern Conference.

"It was an amazing opportunity, because I got the opportunity to be over the entire show — from top to bottom and with the offense, defense and special teams," Mack said. "As the head coach, you basically have to be the CEO of a program and really in tune to what's going on. Just having the macro perspective on how everything works together really helped me a ton."

Heupel and Mack are the only members of Tennessee's staff with previous head-coaching experience, with Mack's four seasons at NCCU topping the past three years that Heupel used to compile a 28-8 mark at Central Florida. Heupel left UCF in late January to take over in Knoxville amid the mess left behind by predecessor Jeremy Pruitt, and he brought three Knights offensive assistants — coordinator and tight ends coach Alex Golesh, line coach Glen Elarbee and quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle — who worked with him last year, and a fourth — receivers coach Kodi Burns — who he hired at UCF roughly a week before leaving for Tennessee.

That leaves Mack as the only offensive assistant who didn't have any notable ties to Heupel.

"He was a tremendous head coach," Heupel said. "He gets it from a global perspective, just how to run a program and what we're doing offensively."

Mack believes he was wanted by Heupel due to his background in both a spread and pro-style offense and because the fact he grew up in Memphis and played at Arkansas State, which could make him a factor in helping the Volunteers better recruit their own turf as well as surrounding states.

When asked why he left his lone career head-coaching role to become Rice's offensive coordinator in December 2017, he said it was to help lifelong friend Mike Bloomgren. Bloomgren spent the 2014-17 seasons as Stanford's offensive coordinator, and he inherited an Owls program coming off a 1-11 season.

There wasn't going to be anything easy about that rebuild, which has been reflected by Rice going 2-11 in 2018, 3-9 in 2019 and a more competitive 2-3 during a five-game season last year.

"I think my three years there were well spent and that we were heading in the right direction in getting that program off the ground," Mack said.

Mack will go from helping rebuild a program to rebuilding a position at Tennessee that has been ravaged by departures. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler were the top two rushers for the Vols this past season but have since transferred to Oklahoma and North Carolina, respectively, while four-star running back signee Cody Brown from Parkview High near Atlanta, recently received an unconditional release from his national letter-of-intent.

Tennessee's current running back landscape consists of Jabari Small (6-foot, 200 pounds) and Dee Beckwith (6-5, 220), who combined on 29 carries for 142 yards as freshmen last season, as well as 2021 signees Tiyon Evans (5-10, 225) and Jaylen Wright (5-11, 200). Evans is from Hartsville, South Carolina, but arrived in Knoxville via Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, while Wright is from Durham, North Carolina.

Much like the Rice opportunity, Mack doesn't see a depleted situation as much as the chance to shine.

"We've got some people in this building who are really dynamic," Mack said. "We had a couple of guys transfer, but I'm still excited about the room we have right now. From what I've seen so far, these guys are going to have the opportunity to be special."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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