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Tennessee running back Tiyon Evans (8) runs against Florida during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

KNOXVILLE — In a few seconds, Tennessee junior running back Tiyon Evans' Tuesday morning session with the media would be over. But first, someone asked him if he'd watched any film of Missouri, which the Vols will visit Saturday at high noon.

Tilting his head slightly downward and breaking into a slight grin, he softly replied, "I really don't want to get into that."

Then he smiled a bit wider and spoke a bit louder.

"I feel like we're getting ready to have some fun," he continued. "We're getting ready to open up this offense and show what we can do."

If Evans and fellow running back Jabari Small do to the Tigers what they often did against the Florida Gators last week in Gainesville, Florida, the Vols offense just might become a sight to behold.

Though UT fell 38-14 at UF, its 16th loss in 17 games to the Gators, Evans and Small both had their moments.

For Evans, the biggest obvious highlight came on the Vols' first touchdown, when he caught a screen pass from quarterback Hendon Hooker and took it 47 yards to the end zone.

"I saw it was an open field," said Evans. "Everything was just green grass."

But for UT running backs coach Jerry Mack, a block Evans threw on Hooker's long TD strike to JaVonta Payton later in the opening half was just as important.

"The thing that impressed me (against Florida) was his pass protection," Mack said. "It's something that we made an emphasis on. You saw that 75-yard touchdown pass that we threw. He was right there to protect our quarterback, to keep that guy out of his face and out of his lap."

Told of Mack's comments, Evans said, "I love blocking. My job is to protect the quarterback. I do that at a high level."

His total stats from the Florida game would indicate he did everything at a high level. Evans finished with 50 yards rushing, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He caught three passes for 71 yards total, including the aforementioned touchdown. His blocking was superb. It was a fine addition to the 120-yard rushing effort he turned in against Bowling Green in the opener before he missed the Pittsburgh loss with an injury.

But so were the numbers recorded by fellow tailback Small, who averaged 5.4 yards a carry over his 59 rushing yards against Florida and turned his one catch into a 22-yard gain, which could be even more important with the Vols' quarterbacks less than 100 percent these days.

Given that the chiseled Evans weighs 220 to Small's 206, could the Big Orange have a Thunder and Lightning tailback tandem on their hands?

"Our relationship brings out what we do on the field," said Evans. "We're so competitive in practice and when we do things, we feed off each other, so me and (Jabari) have that mindset already. There is no type of confusion so when we lock up and pad up, it's go time for us."

Added Small: "In the film room, we just critique each other. Same way in practice, just push each other, keep each other going. It's kind of like we compete, but we also have each other's backs. It's great having him in the room."

While Small became a fan favorite a year ago after prepping at Briarcrest Christian in Memphis, Evans' route to Knoxville after growing up in Hartsville, South Carolina, and playing junior college ball at Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College was a bit more stressful.

"I didn't grow up around all this," Evans said of the grandeur of the UT athletic complex. "Coming from where I came from, it was a rough road the early years of my life. I made some bad decisions when I was in high school."

But he is determined to make sure his young son Tymere doesn't make those same mistakes.

After recalling how good it felt to hold his son in the end zone following the Tennessee Tech game — "I was blessed to have that moment," he said, adding, "I feel like I could have used some guidance (earlier in life) and this is what I'm trying to do with my son. I'm starting early. I'm getting him aware of all this early, so when it's time for him to make his own decisions, he'll have some type of knowledge."

Despite being rated by many as the nation's No. 1 junior college running back a year ago, gaining knowledge on how to succeed at the Southeastern Conference level takes time.

"I think the thing we take away from (Florida) is, don't ever play to the level of your competition no matter how good or how bad," said Mack of Evans' learning curve. "I want to see the same Tiyon Evans every single week. I was a little disappointed coming away from Tennessee Tech. I thought maybe he didn't play as hard, or run with great pad level at times. You saw a different Tiyon (against UF), so this is a great learning tool to showcase what you need to be doing for the rest of the season."

Evans concurred, adding, "Really, it's just a battle with myself. I have standards I'm trying to hold myself at. You know what I'm saying? Just approaching it with the same mindset every day and getting the outcome that I got. That's what we need from backs. We need explosive runs, hard runs downfield."

To underscore the tug of war that Evans fights daily, he said of what he feels he needs to learn: "Being more patient and playing fast."

Yet should Saturday at Mizzou shake out for Evans and Small as it did last week at Florida, what does the young man his teammates call the "Quad Gawd" for his muscular thighs predict for the Vols?

Smiling wide, Evans said, "We'll come back home with a dub (win)."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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