Vols Should Have Plenty of Depth at Running Back

(utsports.com) KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Second-year Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack returns a multitude of talented backs and welcomes two true freshmen this fall. Mack discussed the group’s growth on Monday following the Volunteers’ 12th spring practice.

Tennessee returns to practice on Wednesday, a day prior to its final scrimmage on Thursday morning.

Tennessee Running Backs Coach Jerry Mack

On what he sees in the running back room now that is different from the fall…

“I think right now, the biggest thing I can say is our accountability. One thing, we had a lot of issues with some of our guys not being where they are supposed to be off the field and that carried over, sometimes, on the field. But now, the room has changed dramatically. You see guys making sure they have more leadership responsibility in the room. Guys like Jabari Small have taken a different role. Jaylen Wright is a little bit older so that maturity is really transforming into accountability. The type of things that you always want to see from your players, as far as being in the classroom. Also, you do not have to look for those guys in regards to being on time for meetings and things like that. Sometimes that was an issue, as far as understanding that five minutes early is what we want, not right on time. That is the biggest thing that I see from our room this year.”

On Justin Williams-Thomas

“As far as Justin, the biggest thing I have seen from him is that he is a physical player when he understands what is going on. Everything is moving extremely fast for him right now as a true freshman. But you can see, he shows flashes of things that we really want to see. The physicality, the big body and the ability to get those tough one to two yards that we always talk about, he has that when he understands what to do. Things are still going quite a bit fast for him right now, but for the most part, I think with more reps, more practice, summer and fall camp, I think you are going to see a different player when we get into the season.”

On Jaylen Wright’s growth from year one to year two…

“He has made tremendous jumps within our program. Right now, when we talk about accountability, there is tremendous growth. Also, you can talk about just his understanding of the game overall, the why’s behind why we do things. When he was a freshman last year, it was really just lining up and playing football. Go left, go right and try to figure it out. Everything was moving extremely fast, no different than it is for Justin right now. But now, what I see from Jaylen Wright, we do things within practice where we talk to the unit, he is called on a lot, especially since Jabari Small has been out. To go ahead and talk to the unit because he is the most experienced back that has playing time right now. So, that guy has made tremendous growth within our program. He can eventually be a poster boy to a guy that comes in, basically as a freshman or early enrollee, and then every year continues to get better in the growth process.”

On how comfortable he has to be in Justin Williams-Thomas to put him on the field in the fall…

“I think it is a day-by-day process right now. He has to earn and keep earning the trust of the coaches. Every day and every step for him is one step at a time. Everyday we see a little bit of growth here, today was a footwork growth. He had some issues with just a running game footwork. Today, I don’t think he had a lot of those issues. As we grow over from the summer time into the fall camp, I have got to continue to feel comfortable in him in protections. That is the biggest thing that is different from a young high school guy, to making that jump to college, no different than jumping from college to pro. It is just the protection aspect of it. He does have to get better. All of them have to get better, but everything is moving so fast for him right now. I think he has to continue to grow. I would have never imagined him in a million years that a guy like Jaylen Wright would end up being thrust into those situations last year. You can talk about the last play at the end of the season, you have true freshman in there because of our bodies. There is no difference. You never know what could happen. Our goal is to make sure he is prepared to play to the best of his ability and to continue to work with him. It is one day at a time for him.”

On having Jaylen Wright, who went through the same things that Williams-Thomas is going through now…

“I think for all of them, to be honest with you, if you take a look at even Jabari’s background. He played a little bit in that 2020 season, not very much. He was still kind of a freshman to be honest with you last year in the ’21 season. So, all of those guys have been through a little bit of that in a standpoint. There is no young player, so to speak, in our program. Guys have to come in and they have to learn fast and figure out what is going on so they can be ready to play. We just do not have that luxury to sit guys and say we can groom you and do things like that. Man, when you come here, the expectation is that you are ready to play. We are going to try to do everything in our power to get you ready to play. But guys like Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright being in similar situations in the past, those guys like Justin can really lean on those guys to understand, not only on the field, but on how to manage your day or anything else. There are a lot of new things getting thrown at Justin on and off the field. He has to make sure he knows how to manage it all and take care of his body. He is a big back at 210 to 215 pounds. He is probably one of the bigger back’s we got in the room. He is a muscle guy, low body fat, so the wear and tear on the body over the course of the spring, he has to learn that. Guys like Jabari, who dealt with shoulder issues last year, and guys like Jaylen Wright, who dealt with turf toe issues last year. Those guys can mentor him and let him know, ‘look, go into the training room, get into the cold tub, sleep, extra treatment.’ All of that is truly important to what you end up doing on the field.”

On what Len’Neth Whitehead has done this offseason…

“Len’Neth has really grown from a standpoint of being healthier this spring. You can kind of see it in his game. Day-by-day, he has shown flashes of what we feel like he can do. He is probably the only one that we really feel like we can trust, for the most part, from a pass protection standpoint. As far as, not only understanding what to do, but also having the ability to get there. He is a bigger body guy at 6-2, 220, so you talk about a guy that now matches up pretty good with a lot of linebackers, especially in this league. He has long arms, so he is like a boxer when you have that arm reach that he can put his hands on people extremely fast. From that standpoint, Jabari, you never want to see a player out, but by Jabari being out it has increased his reps tremendously. It is just a matter of getting more reps in there and now he has made some growth on the pass protection standpoint. He has shown some flashes as a runner, as you saw last week in the scrimmage. He is understanding a little more about the running back position and what we expect and want from that position. Keeping those tight tracks, keeping things more vertical downhill, not bouncing things. That was something that all of them had to grow in and he has showed that he is growing in that this offseason.”

On the perspective of a running back by committee…

“I think it is reality of where we are at in college football. You can even see it in the National Football League. The days of guys getting 35, 40 carries in a game and those war-daddies, those days are a little bit gone. We would like to have guys that are running back by committee, to be honest with you. Because that shows that we are recruiting the right guys to come in and contribute right away. That shows that the development in the room is where it needs to be and that breeds competition. It means we will always get fresh bodies and the best guy that is performing the best all week. The expectation is that all of those guys are ready to play and the cream rises to the top. We are always going to play the best players. You do hope that when you put 1A, 1B, the two or three in the game, you hope that the drop off is not that great. That means that we have to continue to bring quality people in the building.”

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