All Jalen Hurd could think about were those bitter summer workouts. The ones where it feels like you're practicing on the scorched surface of the sun and the sweat falls in buckets because it's hot enough to fry an egg on the turf of Haslam Field. It's hard to imagine he was forced to reach back to those memories on a January day, but that's just how hot it was inside Raymond James Stadium Friday when Hurd and his Tennessee team battled both the 80 degree weather and No. 13 Northwestern as Hurd thunderously carried the Vols toward the game's decisive game-sealing drive.
"I was just thinking the whole time, summer workouts, summer workouts, summer workouts, because summer workouts is probably the hardest conditioning we have," Hurd said. "Anybody coming there, I don't care who you are, you're going to be hurting in the summer workouts, so I was thinking of that, thinking how hard we worked over this time and just trying to push through."
The sophomore beckoned back to those adversity-filled days during a drive he capped with a 3-yard touchdown after carrying the ball seven times for 26 yards, highlighted by a run in which he stiff-armed a Northwestern player and bulldozed another as if they were merely made of cardboard. What made his 28 carry, 130-yard performance even more impressive was the fact that, according to Butch Jones, it almost didn't happen.
Hurd was a game time decision to his head coach after suffering a hamstring pull earlier in the week, putting a potential wrench in the offensive game plan just days before Tennessee faced off against Northwestern.
"Jalen was a game-time decision, and it's a testament to him getting himself back, getting himself ready to go," Butch Jones said. "It's a tribute to Jalen, the amount of time that he spent in the training room when we thought he was doubtful for the game, and that's a tribute to him and our training staff and our sports science department of really getting him back."
Tennessee just didn't get its star rusher back. It got the best version of him. Hurd became the first Tennessee player in program history to rush for more than 100 yards in two separate bowl games and earned Outback Bowl MVP honors for his gutsy performance.
"He's very mentally tough," Jones said. "We talk about 'T-tough.' He was T-tough, and he said, 'I can go.' And when you look at 130 yards rushing and he had no negative yards rushing, that's a tribute to the gentlemen up front and to Jalen."
And go he did. After testing his hamstring on Thursday, Hurd determined he'd be fit to play, although he probably would have hit the field no matter how bad he felt.
"I got treatment all wekk, but there was nothing really that was going to stop me from playing," Hurd said. "Even if it hurt, I really didn't care."
If it did hurt in any way, he definitely didn't show it. Although Hurd was seen in pre-game warm-ups stretching out his hamstring, it didn't stop him from putting in a star-studded performance that propelled Tennessee to its second straight bowl victory to end the season on a six game winning streak.
Tennessee is hoping it will be able to play in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa next year, but not in the Outback Bowl. The 2016 national championship will take place on the same grass Hurd scampered across Friday.
Does he know that?
"Absolutely," Hurd said, "We're already prepared for it."