ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, shown celebrating a touchdown during the Oct. 9 win over South Carolina, has received praise this week from Alabama coach Nick Saban entering Saturday's showdown in Tuscaloosa. Whether Hooker actually plays against the Crimson Tide is another matter.

Statistical flukes are harder and harder to come by in college football the deeper into a season.

The Tennessee Volunteers are seven games into the Josh Heupel era, and it's obvious their running game is quite legitimate. Entering this week's challenge of No. 4 Alabama inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Vols rank sixth nationally with 249.1 rushing yards per game, and they have averaged 5.1 yards per carry.

Tennessee's top two rushers are junior running back Tiyon Evans, who has 73 carries for a team-high 486 yards (6.7 per rush), and graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker, who has a team-high 89 carries for 390 yards (4.4).

"They go fast, so people have to get lined up and be ready to play," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They've got a really good runner, and I think their quarterback's ability to run contributes to that. When they run the zone play, he's very capable of trying to cheat the end on the dive to where he can pull the ball.

"They've been very effective at doing that, and they're very well coached. They've got quarterback runs, and they've got quarterback draws. They get you spread out and run those plays, which is very challenging for those up front, and they've got the ability to throw the ball."

Evans did not play during last weekend's 31-26 loss to Ole Miss due to an ankle injury suffered in the previous game against South Carolina, while Hooker sustained a leg injury during the fourth quarter against the Rebels and couldn't finish. In his Thursday news conference, Heupel was asked if the quarterback reps at practice had been split this week between backup Joe Milton and third-stringer Harrison Bailey.

"Hendon has gotten some work during the course of the week, too," Heupel said. "Any determination for where all those guys are at will be made when we get through tomorrow's practice. Our training staff is the decision maker as far as whether guys are ready to play."

Should both Hooker and Evans be unable to suit up in Tuscaloosa, the Vols likely would turn to Milton and to sophomore running back Jabari Small, who was the starter at the beginning of the season and had 21 rushes for 92 yards and a touchdown last Saturday night. Small has rushed 65 times for 324 yards and 5.0 per carry this season, so the obvious wild card with Tennessee's offensive hopes against the Tide would be Milton.

The 6-foot-5, 244-pound graduate transfer from Michigan has rushed 23 times for 156 yards (6.8 per carry) this season but lost his starting role due to an injury in the second game against Pittsburgh, and he could not reclaim it when he returned due to Hooker's consistent play. There were instances against Florida and Ole Miss in which Hooker went down and Milton was needed, but Milton was just 3-of-10 passing for 66 yards combined in those relief roles.

On the final play of last week's loss, Milton opted for a 13-yard scramble to the Ole Miss 8 instead of throwing into the end zone.

"Last Saturday, there were a couple of things he did well," Heupel said. "Obviously, with the last play, everybody could see that he didn't handle that the right way in that critical situation. There were some things through the course of the Florida game that he did well in the two-minute drive, and there are some things he has to do better.

"He just has to continue to grow, fight and compete, whether it's on the field or in the meeting room. He's been good this week."

 

Calbert on horizon?

Fifth-year senior offensive lineman K'Rojhn Calbert never got going this season, suffering a biceps injury early in August camp that required surgery, but the 6-5, 325-pounder from McMinnville could return next month.

"Our medical staff and our strength and conditioning staff have done a really good job in the rehab process, and he's worked extremely hard," Heupel said, "so there is a reasonable expectation that he has an opportunity to play as we get into the last quarter of the season."

Calbert has played in 32 career games with five starts, and he was expected to begin this season in the tackle rotation.

 

Hostile environment

Tennessee's most lopsided loss this season transpired in its most hostile atmosphere, with the Vols falling to Florida 38-14 in the Swamp on Sept. 25.

With a capacity of 100,077, Bryant-Denny will be Tennessee's largest road venue of the season, so the Vols have practiced this week with pumped-in noise.

"You try and replicate that in the way that you prepare," Heupel said. "You create crowd noise for your offense and how you deal with communication. We actually did some of that last week playing at home.

"We're further along in who we are as a program, and I think our kids will handle it the right way and will be dialed in as far as their assignments."

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

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT