While the transfer portal may have hurt Tennessee football in a big way this past year, it also provides opportunities for other guys to step up. Such is the case at running back, where despite losing Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, expectations are still high because of the people on the roster.
Those expectations reached a shocking new level on Wednesday, though, as rising sophomore running back Jabari Small was named to the Doak Walker Award 2021 Preseason Watch List. Gray and Chandler were on the list as well.
Given annually to the nation’s top running back, the list had over 80 players and right at 13 SEC players. Small, though, was a major surprise, despite being Tennessee football’s top performer at the position in the spring.
Remember, Small was the Vols’ third-string running back last year and averaged just four and a half yards a carry, logging just 117 yards on the ground 141 yards from scrimmage overall. That seems like seriously limited production for the 5’11” 206-pound all-purpose back from Memphis, Tenn. to be on such a watch list.
What makes it even odder is the arrival of new running backs, including junior college transfer Tiyon Evans and speedster Jaylen Wright. Add in the power backs in Dee Beckwith, Len’Neth Whitehead and Tee Hodge, and Small has serious competition to play.
So what put him on the list? The answer is pretty simple. There’s a tradition on Rocky Top that dates back to the 1980s with running backs stepping up and becoming stars, more than any other position, when their name is called.
Small is UT’s most experienced returning back, and with Gray and Chandler, last year’s top two offensive players, now on other teams, expectations are for him to be the feature ball carrier. In Josh Heupel’s new scheme, that’s a big deal.
However, Small would just be continuing a tradition of he becomes a breakout star. Tennessee football’s all-time leading rusher, Travis Henry, may have ended up somewhere else were it not for Jamal Lewis suffering a season-ending injury in the fourth game of 1998. Henry came in and helped UT win the national championship.
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After Henry left, Travis Stephens became the feature back. He waited four years to start, redshirting one, and all he did was set the single-season rushing record for UT, which still stands, while coming in second in the Doak Walker Award race, an award he should have won.
Arian Foster emerged in 2005 after a season-ending injury to Gerald Riggs Jr., and Montario Hardesty, like Stephens, waited patiently for his chance to shine in 2009 as a fifth-year senior after Foster was gone. Heck, even Alvin Kamara didn’t become the star that he eventually became until Jalen Hurd left mid-season in 2016, and John Kelly emerged after that as well.
This tradition actually dates back to the Johnny Majors era as well. It’s what helped UT emerge into a powerhouse in the 1990s despite all the talk at the time of the Vols being Wide Receiver U. Running backs stepping up made the story.
In 1989, Reggie Cobb was dismissed from the team midseason. Chuck Webb stepped up and helped the Vols finish 11-1 and win the SEC Championship. In the process, he rushed for 294 yards against the Ole Miss Rebels and 250 yards in the Cotton Bowl against the Arkansas Razorbacks, which remain the first and second most yards in a game in school history.
Webb suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the 1990 season, though, and Tony Thompson, a senior who sat and waited for his chance, stepped up. In Thompson’s first start at the Mississippi State Bulldogs, he rushed for 248 yards, a school mark in a game only eclipsed by Webb. He earned All-SEC that year and helped UT win another SEC title.
Looking at all of this history, Small’s entry onto the Doak Walker watch list is all about what Tennessee football running backs have done in the past. Despite his competition and his limited production, he has a chance to emerge as a superstar, carrying on a great tradition on Rocky Top. Playing in Heupel’s system can only help him.