Tennessee football: Release of RB a blow to Josh Heupel’s offense

If you look at Josh Heupel’s past offenses, his use of running backs with the UCF Knights was different from what he ran with the Missouri Tigers. Given Mizzou’s standing in the SEC, what he did there will likely be more relevant to Tennessee football going forward.

There is one major difference between the two: power and balanced running backs vs. all-purpose backs. Heupel used power backs to great effect at Missouri while not needing them to put up ridiculous stats at UCF. Because of this, the news of UT losing one of its top 2021 signees, a power running back out of Georgia, is more devastating than it initially looks.

Cody Brown, a four-star running back across the board from Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga., stands at 6’0″ 217 pounds and was one of the top pickups for Jeremy Pruitt last year. However, the arrival of Heupel changed things. He revealed on Twitter Wednesday morning that Tennessee football let him out of his letter of intent and that he entered the transfer portal.

Nobody should blame Brown for wanting to transfer. He committed back in May of 2020 to what he thought was a completely different program. However, with Eric Gray and Ty Chandler gone now as well, this is a huge missed opportunity for the Vols.

Backs in Heupel’s system who weigh more than 200 pounds thrive, and all you have to do is look at his time at Mizzou. Larry Rountree III has been a star there the past four years in three different systems. However, at 5’10” 210 pounds, the only time he averaged over five and a half yards was in 2017, when he had 703 yards under Heupel.

Mizzou running back Damarea Crockett, who stood at 5’11” 225 pounds, had even a larger disparity. In 2016, he averaged seven yards a carry and rushed for 1,062 yards. The next year, despite only playing six games, he had 481 yards and averaged six yards a carry. After Heupel left, however, his averaged dropped to under five yards a carry.

You can even go back to Heupel’s one year as offensive coordinator of the Utah State Aggies and look at Devonta Mays. Standing at 5’11” 230 pounds, Mays had 966 yards and averaged six yards a carry in 2015.

Now, over the past three years, things were a bit different. Heupel relied solely on all-purpose backs to get the job done. Over the past two years, Greg McRae and Otis Anderson have been the leading rushers, standing at 5’10” 175 pounds and 5’11” 174 pounds respectively.

McRae is a full-time running back and has rushed for 1,287 yards the past two years. Anderson technically doubles as a wide receiver and has rushed for 1,413 yards the past two years. Adrian Killins, who stands at 5’8″ 164 pounds, had 629 rushing yards in 2019 with them, and Bentavious Thompson, who stands at 6’1″ 197 pounds, added 604 yards.

Clearly, Heupel likes all-purpose backs. In 2018, though, the one year Heupel won the AAC and led UCF to a second straight undefeated regular season, McRae had his best year with 1,182 rushing yards. Killins had 1,092 all-purpose yards. Anderson, as a backup, had 505 all-purpose yards.

Want to know what stands out about that year? It was the only season Heupel had a back over 200 pounds. Taj McGowan, who stood at 6’1″ 202 pounds, had 470 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging over six and a half yards a carry.

What’s the takeaway in all this? Heupel’s rushing attack is at its best when he has a combination of power backs and speed backs. At Mizzou, all-purpose backs were still relied upon. Ish Witter, who stood at 5’10” 195 pounds, had 1,049 yards in 2017 and 750 yards in 2016. The two types of backs complement each other.

As a result, with Brown gone, Tennessee football’s first team could have a bit more limited offense under Heupel. He now has one less option to fill that power back role, making his offense complete. What can the Vols hope for?

Well, to be fair, junior college transfer Tiyon Evans, a product of South Carolina is still there. Evans, who stands at 5’10” 225 pounds and comes from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, was a three-star on Rivals but a four-star on 247Sports and ESPN. He could fill that option.

Len’Neth Whitehead, Tee Hodge and Dee Beckwith are all returning power backs. Whitehead stands at 6’2″ 225 pounds, Hodge stands at 6’1″ 215 pounds and Beckwith stands at 6’5″ 220 pounds. One of them could step up for Tennessee football as well. On the all-purpose back side, Jaylen Wright is a speedy addition to the program, and Jabari Small is still there as well.

Still, despite all of those guys and the potential to have an elite system, Brown’s loss puts the Vols on thinner ice. Small has shown promise already, but none of those power backs really showed any promise last year.

To have a successful first season, Heupel needs both Wright and Small to emerge for Tennessee football. He then needs two of the four between Evans, Hodge, Beckwith and Whitehead to be successful. That will allow the Vols to run a two-deep set with two power backs and two all-purpose backs. It’s possible, but without Brown, it’s harder.