Several eyebrows were raised earlier this fall when Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie said a team needs six running backs just to get through a typical SEC football season.
Well ... those eyebrows are no longer raised.
When Jalen Hurd left Tennessee’s regular-season finale at Vanderbilt game due to an unspecified injury, Tennessee’s only scholarship option at running back was Marlin Lane, who had been battling a sprained ankle for weeks.
So, how did Tennessee find itself in such a precarious situation?
-Freshman Treyvon Paulk was dismissed from the program earlier this season.
-Senior Devrin Young was unavailable due to a high-ankle sprain.
-Freshman Derrell Scott was unavailable due to an injured right wrist.
When Hurd got dinged up in Nashville the Vols’ stable of five scholarship rushers was reduced to Lane, who had health issues of his own. The 5-foot-11, 209-pound senior had to be carried from the field following the South Carolina game just four weeks earlier because of his ankle.
As Gillespie noted, running backs get hit on every play, whether they carry the ball or not, so they are constantly at risk of injury. That’s why the teams that win consistently – Alabama, for instance – usually have a stockpile of quality rushers. When 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram elected to bypass his senior season of 2011, the Tide turned to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. Richardson wound up being the third player picked in the 2012 NFL Draft and Lacy would go on to be the 2013 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In the good old days Tennessee was similarly loaded at running back. Whenever a key rusher was sidelined, another took his place without missing a beat. Consider:
Reggie Cobb, who rushed for 1,197 yards as a redshirt freshman in 1987, was dismissed midway through the 1989 season. Backup Chuck Webb filled the void by rushing for 1,236 yards, including a 294-yard effort versus Ole Miss that still stands as the single-game school record.
Webb suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Game 2 of 1990. Backup Tony Thompson stepped into the first-team role, running for even more yards (1,261) and more touchdowns (16) than Webb had the previous season.
Jamal Lewis, who rushed for an SEC-best 1,364 yards as a freshman in 1997, tore an ACL in Game 4 of 1998. Backup Travis Henry ran for 970 yards and went on to become the leading career rusher in program history.
Gerald Riggs, who ran for 1,107 yards in 2004, suffered a season-ending injury midway through the ’05 season. Freshman Arian Foster picked up the slack quite admirably, running for 869 yards on his way to becoming the second-most productive rusher in program history.
Although commonly known as “Wide Receiver U,” Tennessee sent a bunch of elite runners to the pros the past 25 years. Check it out:
The 1989 “Cobb-Webb” tandem of Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb might have been the greatest duo in program history except that Cobb was dismissed for violating team rules and Webb tore an ACL in Game 2 of 1990. A second-round NFL Draft pick in 1990, Cobb went on to play seven seasons in “The League.” Although his ACL never fully recovered Webb was a third-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1991 who spent one season with the team.
Tennessee’s 1992-93 tailback corps featured future pros Charlie Garner, Little Man Stewart and Aaron Hayden. JUCO transfer Garner averaged 6.7 yards per carry in his two years as a Vol, the highest career mark since Beattie Feathers averaged 7.2 from 1931-33. Garner went on to spend 11 distinguished seasons in the NFL. Stewart, who ranks third on Tennessee’s career rushing list with 2,890 yards, went on to be a first-round draft pick and play eight NFL seasons. Hayden, though stuck behind Garner and Stewart for half of his college career, wound up playing five NFL seasons.
Tennessee’s running back depth was so strong in 2004 that it produced two 1,000-yard rushers for the only time in program history. Gerald Riggs ran for 1,107 yards that fall and Cedric Houston 1,005. Houston wound up playing one season in the NFL, Riggs one season in the Canadian Football League.
Tennessee’s 2006-08 backfields featured two future NFL rushers in Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty. Foster ran for 1,193 yards as a Vol junior, then blossomed in the NFL – leading all rushers in 2010 and earning Pro Bowl selections in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Hardesty ran for 1,345 yards as a Tennessee senior in 2009 and was a second-round NFL Draft pick in 2010. Hindered by an ACL tear, he retired after two seasons of pro ball.
Since Foster and Hardesty left Tennessee’s running-back ranks have been pretty thin. The fact the Vols were one player (Marlin Lane) from having to play walk-ons in the Vanderbilt game is a perfect illustration.
Running-back depth should not be a problem in 2015, as Gillespie will have a deeper rotation. Hurd will be back for his sophomore year after rushing for 777 regular-season yards as a true freshman in 2014. Scott, who showed promise between injuries, is scheduled to return. Joining them will be junior college standout Alvin Kamara and three-star high school commitment Rocky Reid.
Kamara starred for Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, averaging 7.0 yards per carry and 134.6 yards per game this fall. He ranked fifth in all of JUCO football for rushing yards (1,253) and third for rushing touchdowns (18), despite missing three games with a minor leg injury.
Widely regarded as the top running back in the junior college ranks, the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Kamara was tabbed Kansas Jayhawk Offensive Player of the Week twice – following a 32-carry, 165-yard, three-touchdown effort against Dodge City in Week 4 and following an 11-carry, 132-yard, three-TD effort against Garden City in Week 6. He carried 26 times for 131 yards and a touchdown in Hutchinson’s Week 9 loss to Iowa Western.
The Vols' high school commitment shows promise, as well. Reid is rated No. 44 among prep rushers by Scout.
Hurd, Scott, Kamara and Reid should provide quality and quantity for the foreseeable future. Maybe the Vols will add another runner to their 2015 signing class ... just to help ensure they aren't reduced to one scholarship running back again anytime soon.