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VOL. 131 | NO. 166 | Friday, August 19, 2016

Vols Offensive Line Rushing Into Much-Anticipated Season

DAVE LINK, Nashville sports correspondent

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Jalen Hurd knows right where he stands among Tennessee’s running backs of the past and wants to be No. 1 in career rushing yards at the end of the 2016 season.

KNOXVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 07, 2015 - running back Jalen Hurd #1 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN.  

(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics)

The junior from Hendersonville Beech High School needs 892 yards to surpass Travis Henry as UT’s career rushing leader.

He has rushed for 2,187 yards in his first two seasons, while Henry rushed for 3,078 yards in four seasons (1997-2000), but had only two carries for 4 yards as a freshman.

Hurd has the record as a goal – but it’s not his primary goal.

“Absolutely, now that it’s reachable and you can see it, I definitely want to do that,” Hurd says. “That’s a goal of mine. Obviously, the biggest goal for me is to help my team get a national championship.”

Tennessee is the favorite to win the SEC East Division and play in the league championship game.

With 19 starters returning from last year’s 9-4 team, the Vols are ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press preseason poll and No. 10 in the USA Today coaches’ poll.

This is the most-hyped UT football team in a decade. Hurd says the Vols have the same hopes as fans.

“Our expectations for this team are a lot higher than anyone can put on us, so we look forward to exceeding those expectations and doing very well,” Hurd explains.

This could be the last season at Tennessee for Hurd, who at 6-foot-4, 240-plus pounds appears destined for the NFL.

In May, Hurd caught the attention of media and UT’s coaches when he posted on his Twitter account he jumped on a treadmill moving at 23.1 miles per hour and sprinted on it for about eight seconds.

Hurd was working with professional trainers in Orange County, California, and saw the fast-moving treadmill as a challenge.

“It’s hard,” he points out. “I’ve never done that before. It was some different training I did. It was very difficult. You’re supposed to really like build up to that, but I did it after a couple of weeks. That probably wasn’t the smartest thing, but I wanted to try it.”

Tennessee coach Butch Jones had the same thoughts when he saw Hurd’s Twitter post.

“I had to look the other way and pretend I didn’t see it,” Jones says. “Then he got a lecture from me with a phone call about being smart and taking care of himself.”

Last season, Hurd rushed for 1,288 yards, the seventh-best single season for a running back, and became UT’s first sophomore to post a 1,000-yard season. He was fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (99.1) and fourth in total rushing yards.

Hurd says he’s gotten better since last year.

“I can definitely tell a difference in my speed,” he says. “I feel like I’ve gotten faster. I feel like my burst has gotten faster. You see it during camp, you see it during spring, but you really don’t feel it and get in that true moment until a game and that’s what I’m ready to show.”

Hurd says he’s pushed by other top running backs in the SEC – LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb, to name a couple.

So who’s the best running back in the SEC? “We’ll find out after this year,” Hurd replies.

Tennessee could make a case for having the SEC’s top rushing duo with Hurd and junior Alvin Kamara, a shifty runner and pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

Kamara was second on the team in rushing yards last year (698), led the team in yards per carry (6.5), and had seven rushing touchdowns. He was second in catches (34) and fifth in receiving yards (291) and caught three TD passes.

“Alvin’s a great guy, and I’m happy that he’s right next to me running the ball sometimes,” Hurd explains. “I’m happy he’s coming in and getting me out. He’s a great leader and we love having him on our team.”

Hurd, currently 12th on UT’s career rushing list, should get more than enough carries to surpass Henry, assuming he stays healthy.

It was a mark Hurd thought reachable when he came to UT.

“My expectations were very high,” he says. “I couldn’t say that I didn’t expect that (record), but to see it actually come to fruition now and it actually happened, it’s very crazy. It’s a blessing.”

Tennessee is completing its third week of fall camp in preparation for the Sept. 1 season opener against Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium.

Here’s a look at the Vols’ offense at this stage:


Quarterback

Burning question offensively: Who is Tennessee’s quarterback of the future?

UT has a proven starter in senior Joshua Dobbs, one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. But who will be the No. 2 quarterback behind Dobbs when the Vols are in crunch time this season?

Sophomore Quinten Dormady had the backup position when fall camp started, and there’s been no word of his role changing yet. Dormady (6-4, 215) played in six games last year and completed 13 of 22 passes for 209 yards and one touchdown in mop-up duty.

But Dormady has competition in fall camp from redshirt freshman Sheriron Jones, a four-star dual threat quarterback from Rancho Verde High in Moreno, California, and freshman Jarrett Guarantano, a three- and four-star dual threat quarterback from Bergen Catholic High in Oradell, New Jersey.

Jones and Guarantano both have similar tools like Dobbs and could take over as Tennessee’s quarterback in 2017.

For now, Dobbs carries much of UT’s title hopes on his shoulders – despite criticism of his inability to throw deep passes. (He completed one pass longer than 45 yards and three longer than 40 yards last year.)

However, Dobbs threw for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns with only five interceptions (tied for third fewest in the nation). He completed 59.6 percent of his passes (sixth in the SEC). He’s been UT’s starter since the sixth game of the 2014 season. No doubt the players and coaches trust Dobbs to run their spread offense.

Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord enters his second season working with Dobbs, and he’s seen development from a leadership standpoint.

“He’s smart and everything else,” DeBord says of Dobbs. “I think sometimes it’s hard for him to be a vocal leader. He’s led all the time by his style of play and the way he plays the game, but what I’ve seen this season is the vocal part, and I think that’s where he’s matured.


Running backs

Like the quarterback situation, UT has its one-two running back punch in order with Hurd and Kamara. It’s a question of who gets the carries after them.

Sophomore John Kelly (5-9, 212) appears to be the next in line. The three-star recruit from Oak Park High in Detroit played in 10 games last year and rushed for 166 yards and one touchdown on 40 carries.

Joe Young, a sophomore from Winnsboro, North Carolina, would have been on the depth chart, but sustained a career-ending neck injury in the spring. He rushed for 64 yards and one touchdown last year.

Tennessee has big plans for Carlin Fils-Aime (5-11, 175), a three- and four-star recruit out of Naples (Florida) High. Fils-Aime was the Naples Daily News’ 2015 player of the year and was a consensus Class 6A all-state player after rushing for 2,624 yards and 41 touchdowns in his career.

This year belongs to Hurd and Kamara, though. They combined for 1,986 rushing yards last season, averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and got 45 percent of the touches (440 of 988 snaps).

Kelly also will get some carries, but it’s DeBord’s call when it comes to divvying up the touches.

“That is always game-plan oriented, number one,” DeBord explains. “Number two, Robert Gillespie (running backs coach) does a great job of monitoring that through the game, and he’ll even tell me sometimes, ‘Hey, we need to get so-and-so the ball a little bit more right now. We haven’t done that.’ It’s a big help to me calling plays.”


Offensive line

This unit has evolved from a liability two years ago to a potential strength of the offense with four of the five starters returning from the 2015 team.

UT’s only departed starter was left tackle and former Knoxville Catholic standout Kyler Kerbyson, a senior in 2015 and currently on the New England Patriots roster.

His replacement could be redshirt freshman Drew Richmond (6-5, 301), a four- and five-star tackle from Memphis University School – but only if he beats out returnees Brett Kendrick and Chance Hall, who split time starting at right tackle last year.

Kendrick (6-6, 318), a fourth-year junior from Christian Academy of Knoxville, started five games and played in seven last year, but missed the remaining games with elbow and knee injuries. Hall, of Northside High in Roanoke, Virginia, started the last seven games as a true freshman last year.

Other returning starters to the line are junior center Coleman Thomas (6-5, 301), senior right guard Dylan Wiesman (6-4, 310), and junior left guard Jashon Robertson (6-3, 305).

Thomas, of Fort Chiswell High in Max Meadows, Virginia, started 12 games at center and one at right tackle last year. Wiesman, of Cincinnati’s Colerain High, started 12 games at right guard and one at left guard. Robertson, of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy, started 10 games at left guard.

Sophomore Jack Jones (6-4, 307) of Murfreesboro Oakland High is working at guard and center in fall camp. Redshirt freshman Venzell Boulware (6-3, 306) of Creekside High in Fairburn, Georgia, is working at both guard positions.

Tennessee wants versatility from its offensive linemen, and many are expected to play more than one position.

DeBord says UT’s O-line is improved from 2015 when the Vols rushed for 2,908 yards, the most since the 1951 season.

“I think the whole group is taking a step forward,” DeBord adds. “We’re not where we need to be yet, but what I do see is the progress. That’s what we like right now.”

Tennessee signed three freshman offensive tackles: Marcus Tatum (6-6, 265) of Mainland High/Ormand Beach, Florida; Nathan Niehaus (6-6, 295) of Cincinnati’s Colerain High; and Ryan Johnson (6-6, 275) of Brentwood Academy in Nashville. Johnson can also play guard.


Wide receivers/tight ends

UT’s wide receiver corps from 2015 return intact except for departed senior Von Pearson, who led the team in catches (38) and receiving yards (409) and tied for touchdowns catches (three).

Junior Josh Malone (6-3, 200) of Station Camp High in Gallatin was third in catches (31) and had the team-high 405 yards with two touchdowns. He started 12 of 13 games at receiver.

Junior Josh Smith (6-1, 213) and junior tight end Ethan Wolf (6-6, 245) tied for fourth in catches with 23 each. Smith, who played at Christian Academy of Knoxville, had 307 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 39-yarder that started UT’s rally from a 24-3 deficit in a Sept. 10 win over Georgia.

Sophomore Jauan Jennings (6-3, 205) had 14 catches for 149 yards, and Preston Williams (6-4, 209) had seven for 158.

Williams is expected to make the biggest jump in production from 2015 to this season. He got a late start in camp last year because he wasn’t cleared to practice until Aug. 28, and he missed four games due to a hamstring injury.

Jennings, who came to UT as a quarterback, missed spring practices due to injury and was still hampered in fall camp.

Redshirt freshman Vincent Perry (5-10, 175) suffered a knee injury in fall camp last year and hopes to be in the receiver mix, but UT’s newcomers to the group will make it a challenge.

Freshman Tyler Byrd (6-0, 195) caused a buzz when he flipped his commitment from Miami and signed with Tennessee, and he continued the stir when he was announced as a wide receiver for fall camp. ESPN rated Byrd the No. 1 athlete and No. 1 prospect coming out of Florida last year after he earned consensus Class 6A all-state honors.

“He’s a guy that’s got great talent,” DeBord says. “He’s learning. It’s every day, we put some new things in. Again, it’s that foreign language he’s learning, but what I love about (Byrd) is he’s focused and he continues to make a lot of plays. We like where he is.”

Other newcomers are freshmen Marquez Callaway of Warner Robbins (Ga.) High, Brandon Johnson (6-2, 180) of American Heritage High/Plantation, Florida; Latrell Williams (50-11, 175) of Columbia High/Lake City, Florida, and junior transfer Jeff George (6-6, 195) of Dodge City (Kansas) Community College/Leavenworth, Kansas.

The tight end position lacked depth with the departure of former walk-on Alex Ellis, who played a significant role in UT’s two tight-ends set last year.

Fifth-year senior Jason Croom (6-5, 246) of Norcross (Georgia) High moves from receiver to tight end and will bolster the unit. He missed the 2015 season after suffering a knee injury in December of 2014.

Other tight ends are former linebacker/junior Jakob Johnson (6-3, 250), redshirt freshman Eli Wolf (6-4, 216), freshman Devante Brooks (6-5, 255) and freshman Austin Pope (6-4, 230). Pope played for Christian Academy of Knoxville.

“I feel good where we are at tight end,” DeBord says. “I think Jason Croom has done a great job of really learning that position. (Tight ends coach) Larry Scott’s done a great job of coaching him. I like where we are at tight end and we have depth there too.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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