The Josh Heupel era for Tennessee football starts Thursday. Rocky Top opens the season at home against the Bowling Green Falcons after an abysmal 3-7 campaign last year and under the cloud of an NCAA investigation. It truly is a new era, though, with a wave of newcomers offsetting the decimation suffered in the transfer portal this offseason amidst Jeremy Pruitt’s firing.
A new team and a new head coach will face a BGSU program under Scot Loeffler that has its own issues. Loeffler is 3-14 in two years there, coming off an 0-5 season last year. This would seem to set the stage for the Vols to have the perfect opener, especially since Loeffler isn’t a defensive guy.
For that to happen, though, UT will need multiple players to step up. A blowout is expected for the Vols to open the year despite how much they have struggled. Whether or not that happens is up to them. However, certain players can exploit BGSU’s weaknesses more than others. Let’s break them down here. These are the five key Vols in Tennessee football’s opener.
5’11” 206 pounds; Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.
All the talk surrounding Josh Heupel’s offense seems to be about the quarterback. However, Heupel has a history of relying on two running backs to pick up lots of yards as well, and this year, Jabari Small is in the perfect position to do that. He’s got the perfect opener to showcase his abilities for everybody as well.
Last year, the Bowling Green Falcons gave up over 300 yards on the ground a game. They can’t stop the run at all. Meanwhile, Small gained experience backing up Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, who have since transferred to the Oklahoma Sooners and North Carolina Tar Heels respectively.
As a result, this year, Small is in the perfect position to thrive. He is listed as one of the two starters at running back for the game on Saturday, and he’s the only one who was a feature back in the spring and in fall camp. Tennessee football will rely heavily on him to set up its offense, and if he doesn’t rack up lots of yards, they could be in trouble.