When Tennessee first-year football coach Josh Heupel discusses growth within his offensive system, he has a couple of obvious examples to cite.
Graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker has catapulted from a backup at the beginning of the season to ranking sixth nationally in passing efficiency entering Saturday night's game against South Alabama inside Neyland Stadium. There is also redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman, who had eight career catches entering this season but racked up 10 for 200 yards and a touchdown during last week's 41-17 loss to top-ranked Georgia.
Yet the growth of Jabari Small might be a little tougher to gauge given that the sophomore running back has been injured here and missed a game there for the Volunteers (5-5).
"As guys have been banged up and haven't been able to go, it limits you from seeing their growth on game day," Heupel said, "and it takes away some their potential during the week to grow, too, if they're not able to get a ton of practice reps. We've seen Jabari continue to grow in his understanding of what we're doing and learning how to play the position with great pad level and being better in pass protection.
"I think a lot of growth comes when guys don't have the ball in their hands, but Jabari has continued to grow throughout the course of the season."
When Eric Gray and Ty Chandler elected to enter the NCAA transfer portal after last season, it left the 5-foot-11, 206-pounder out of Briarcrest Christian in Memphis as Tennessee's top returning rusher. Small rushed for 117 yards a year ago and matched that total in the 38-6 opening win over Bowling Green.
Tiyon Evans, who enrolled at Tennessee in January out of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, emerged in preseason camp as a nice complement to Small and amassed 120 yards in the opener, but injuries have prevented a 1-2 punch from ever thriving. Evans suffered an ankle injury in the Nov. 6 win at Kentucky that sidelined him against Georgia and may keep him out against the Sun Belt Conference's Jaguars (5-5).
"There have been obstacles we've had to overcome and a little adversity, but we just keep each other going whether we're both going or one of us is not playing," Small said. "I've had to overcome a lot of adversity and a lot of injuries and play through a lot of injuries. I've just tried to make the most of what I've had."
Small has been healthy enough to play in eight games, rushing 88 times for 436 yards (5.0 per carry) and four touchdowns, with a 21-carry, 92-yard performance in the 31-26 loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 16 serving as his best game against a Southeastern Conference foe. Small's best run of the season was a 37-yard touchdown in which he juked Kentucky senior safety Tyrell Ajian at the 20.
"I was just using my instincts right there," Small said, breaking into a smile. "It came out pretty good."
Evans has played in seven contests, amassing 81 carries for 525 yards (6.5) and six scores. The two have helped Tennessee produce 200.9 rushing yards a game to rank 25th nationally, but the Vols were sixth in that category last month with a 249.1-yard clip heading to Alabama.
Small is eager to help Tennessee to a strong finish — "At the end of the day, we get to play football. You can't take these practices back or these games back," he said — while Heupel is excited to see what Small can do against the Jaguars and in the future.
"He's a young guy who's only going to get better," Heupel said. "The offseason, and I'm looking ahead, will allow him to pack on a few more pounds and add strength to his size and frame, which will be important for him."