Tennessee has three tiny weapons on its team this fall — 5-foot-8, 171-pound Devrin Young, 5-foot-9, 175-pound Quenshaun Watson and 5-foot-8, 185-pound Alton Howard. Young averaged a team-best 5.8 yards per carry en route to 46 rushing yards in last Saturday's defeat of Georgia State and also contributed a 35-yard punt return. Watson chipped in 27 rushing yards and a touchdown on seven carries, plus a 17-yard pass reception. Howard, nicknamed "Pig," missed the first two games with a foot injury but has gotten rave reviews from his veteran teammates all fall. He projects to make his collegiate debut this Saturday against Florida.
Clearly, Tennessee's offensive coordinator has no reservations about playing small ballers.
"Not if you're competitive and you can run and you can play football the right way," Jim Chaney said. "There have been great football players in all shapes and sizes. That's just the way it is."
Still, a player deficient in size generally must compensate by being proficient in other areas.
"It's all about heart out here," Young said.
He, Watson and Howard reportedly have plenty of heart. They also share other key attributes that enable them to offset their lack of size.
"Speed, toughness, durability — all of the intangibles that make all players good," Chaney said. "They just happen to be small of stature. I don't even look at them as little people. I look at them as good football players."
Because football tends to be a big man's game, little guys often must work harder just to earn a chance to compete. This can enhance their drive and determination.
"For the most part they've got a little chip on their shoulder," first-year Vol running backs coach Jay Graham said, "but that's a good thing."
Although he packed 215 pounds on a 6-foot frame during his playing days at Tennessee, Graham believes a small back faces no significant disadvantage.
"Actually, I think it's a plus for them," he said. "They're behind big offensive linemen and it's hard for linebackers to see you back there."
|Devrin Young's elusiveness in open space is the exact reason why Tennessee signed the Knoxville native.|
Chaney quipped that Young's knack for hiding behind his blockers might warrant adding another page to Tennessee's playbook.
"That would be good," the coordinator said with a laugh. "Maybe that is an advantage. Maybe Devrin could crawl through the line."
One of Tennessee's most successful small backs of recent years was Tony Thompson, a 5-foot-8, 195-pounder who ran for 1,261 yards after No. 1 tailback Chuck Webb suffered a torn ACL in Game 2 of 1990. Thompson was strong enough and durable enough to run between the tackles effectively.
Graham believes Devrin Young and Quenshaun Watson offer similar versatility, noting: "The most important thing is that you're hitting it (the hole) with speed. Those guys can run inside, as well as outside."
When you're 5-feet-8 and 171 pounds playing against 300-pound behemoths, however, you need more than speed and strength. You also need toughness, savvy and discipline. Young, Watson and Howard apparently have these attributes.
"Competitive players have the intangibles they have," Chaney said, "and all three of those share that. But I can't say they're considerably different (than bigger players). They just happen to be shorter than a normal person."
Junior linebacker Jacques Smith says Young, Watson and Howard are explosive and difficult to corral in practice.
"Those guys are really small and versatile," he said. "They can fly around. If you miss a tackle they can hit you up for a 100-yarder. And Pig Howard is a strong guy. I seen something special in him when he did 7 on 7 with us. We're excited about him being back and ready to go."
Wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw also is eager to see Howard's belated college debut but cautions Vol fans not to expect too much too soon.
"I'm really excited to see him in action but you've got to be patient with him because the learning curve is not there," Hinshaw said. "He missed (fall) camp and didn't have the chance to make mistakes. I compare it to riding a bike. You can talk all you want about riding a bike but when you get on what do you do? You fall off. He's falling off right now, so we've got to get him to pedal fast through everything. We'll learn how to do wheelies later."
Despite his inexperience, Howard is an intriguing prospect. In addition to electrifying speed, he has some bulk and power.
"He's strong and he's got really good quickness," Hinshaw said. "He's probably one of the top two or three speed guys on our team. He worked really hard this summer until the injury happened, and now he's worked and rehabbed himself into position to get on the field."
Although 5-foot-8 receivers are rare at the collegiate level, Hinshaw said Tennessee staffers were intrigued by Howard the first time they watched him.
"You always evaluate wide receivers as short, middle or tall," the Vol aide said. "If you're short, you've got to have great elusiveness and great speed to be a difference-maker. He has that. That's what we saw in him: He can take the ball to the house at any moment. He's also got really good hands and he gets open really well."
Like many little guys, Howard, Young and Watson tend to make crisper cuts than bigger players do. As a result, Vol defensive lineman Daniel Hood says getting a clean shot on any of them in practice is more difficult than it appears.
"It's tough," he said with a laugh. "If I'm trying to tackle Devrin and I've got three yards (of open space) on each side, he can make me look like a fool being able to cut the way he does.
"I've got to make sure our linebackers are filling their gaps so the biggest gap I've got is like a yard and a half. If it's a yard and a half I think I can get him down. If it's outside of that, I don't know."
Clearly, Young has learned how to compensate for his lack of ideal size. When asked how he does it, he smiled.
"Speed and elusiveness," he said. "You can't always fight fire with fire. You've got to use what you've got."