Tennessee’s greatest football teams of the past 20 years had at least one thing in common – big, strong, fast running backs.
Jay Graham, a 6-foot, 220-pounder with the burst to get outside, ran for 2,609 yards between 1993 and ‘96, despite playing for teams built around Peyton Manning throwing the football. Tennessee’s record during Graham’s four years was 39-9, with national finishes of No. 12, No. 22, No. 3 and No. 9.
Next came the dynamic duo of Jamal Lewis (6-feet, 230 pounds) and Travis Henry (5-feet-10, 220 pounds), who combined to hold the tailback position from 1997-2000. Lewis played less than 2½ seasons, missing most of 1998 with a torn ACL and skipping his senior year of 2000 to turn pro. Still, the burly bruiser ranks fifth on Tennessee’s all-time rushing list with 2,677 career yards.
For those keeping score at home, Tennessee’s record during the Big Back Era of Graham, Lewis and Henry was 80-18 with five top-10 finishes.
This is noteworthy for one reason: Tennessee will be relying on big backs in the season ahead. Senior Marlin Lane added 10 pounds since last fall and now packs 220 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame. He’ll be sharing the carries with Jalen Hurd, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound freshman. They give Tennessee’s ground game a downhill dimension in that they are capable of running over defenders, as well as running around them.
“I think that’s what we missed last year – a guy that had a physical presence back there,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said recently.
Obviously, heft doesn’t ensure a great ground game or every college backfield would feature a corps of 220-pounders. Heft can be the difference between a 10-yard gain and a 40-yard gain, however. That’s why Gillespie thinks Hurd could pop some big runs this fall.
“In this league once you get to the second level you have to make defensive backs scared to tackle you,” the Vol aide said. “I think that’s what he’ll possess: I think he’ll be able to break tackles at the line of scrimmage with his 225 pounds. I think he’s going to get the pad level down and run over some linebackers because you’ve got to do that in this league.”
Hurd is similar in size to many of the linebackers he’ll be challenging and considerably bigger than most of the defensive backs hoping to knock him off his feet this fall.
“On the runs where we block it perfectly and he gets in the open field,” Gillespie said, “those cornerbacks are going to have a hard time bringing him down.”
Basically, Tennessee is borrowing a page from Alabama, which has enjoyed incredible success in recent years with power runners hammering opposing defenses. The procession of bulky backs started with Mark Ingram (5-feet-9, 215 pounds), then continued with Trent Richardson (5-feet-9, 225 pounds), Eddie Lacy (6-feet, 230 pounds) and T.J. Yeldon (6-feet-2, 218 pounds).
Ingram won the 2009 Heisman Trophy. Richardson was the third player picked in the 2012 NFL Draft and Lacy was the 2013-14 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Yeldon rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a Tide freshman and more than 1,200 as a sophomore last fall.
Tennessee’s depth behind big backs Lane and Hurd is unproven. It currently consists of a senior change-of-pace back (5-foot-8, 178-pound Devrin Young), a senior walk-on (5-9, 201-pound DeAnthonie Summerhill) and a junior transfer from Maryland (5-foot-10, 199-pound Justus Pickett).
Tennessee lost all five starters from its 2013 offensive line, so the run blocking may be a bit spotty this fall. If the 1-2 punch of Lane and Hurd proves to be as powerful as it appears, however, the two of them may create some holes on their own.
Below are spring practice highlights of Hurd at Haslam Field and Neyland-Thompson Sports Center from InsideTennessee: