Losing Ty Chandler and Eric Gray in the transfer portal to the North Carolina Tar Heels and Oklahoma Sooners respectively should be a huge blow to Tennessee football on paper. These two elite running backs were the top two offensive producers for the Vols last year.
However, a strong collection of young but unproven running backs added in the 2020 and 2021 classes may help offset that. Indeed, early on in Josh Heupel’s first spring practice, a few of them are already starting to stand out.
Reports the first week of spring ball were that Tiyon Evans, a junior college 2021 signee, was impressing early. A four-star on 247Sports and ESPN, Evans is a complete running back at 5’11” 220 pounds. Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh described him as a power “shorter” back with still a ton of athleticism.
Short power backs aren’t all Tennessee football has, though. The Vols also have a tall power back in Dee Beckwith, who was expected to play receiver as an athlete in the 2020 class. However, at 6’5″ 227 pounds, he has been at running back the whole time.
On Tuesday, Mack touted Beckwith learning the “finer” details of playing the position, particularly his pad leverage given his size. Beckwith’s intelligence was touted too, and that’s a big deal for a running back who needs to have proper vision and a good understanding of the offense.
Then there are the all-purpose backs. Jabari Small is back after carrying the ball 26 times for 117 yards and catching four passes for 24 yards last year. Mack has been high on him as well, describing him as a guy “born to play running back” at 5’11” 206 pounds.
Add in early enrollee Jaylen Wright, and you’ve got an elite speedster at 5’11” 200 pounds. Mack has already touted Wright’s speed standing out at the college level, which is a big deal. He just seems to need the game to slow down for him.
This makes for two power backs and two all-purpose backs combining elite speed, vision, strength and experience in Evans’ case as a junior college transfer. Between these four, you can find the right one-two punch in Heupel’s system, and his offense does rely on both types of backs.
If, by some chance, only one or none of those guys pan out, Len’Neth Whitehead and Tee Hodge are both power backs still in the system. Reports say Whitehead, another athlete, is still locked in at running back.
Now, keeping Whitehead and Beckwith there may raise some concern about just how deep Tennessee football truly is at the position, but it could be that the Vols are just experimenting right now. After all, despite the bodies and the potential, there is little proven among these guys.
Going forward, it’s likely Heupel finds the perfect combination among this group. Evans and Small appear to be the favorites in a two-back set right now as the other guys develop, but there is plenty of room to find depth behind those guys.
Assuming those two work out, Tennessee football may be in much better shape at running back than initially thought. That Evans could stand out as an early spring performer is a great sign for the program. All signs suggest Small is doing the same thing. As a result, this team could be fine in the backfield.