Hendon Hooker is a Heisman frontrunner now. Jalin Hyatt is the breakout superstar. Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton are showing what Tennessee football can do at wideout. Jabari Small has been key on short-yardage runs.
With all of these weapons, lost in the shuffle can be the way the Vols rely on their all-purpose backs, most notably Jaylen Wright but also Dylan Sampson. Wright struggled with fumbles early in the year but has come on as of late.
Wright led Tennessee football in rushing as the Vols beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 52-49 last week. He had 12 carries for 71 yards and a five-yard catch to go along with it. Heupel touted his toughness running.
“I just think last week in particular, the week before too, it showed up, but last week was his best week of running the football,” Heupel said in his Thursday press conference. “Pad level, running his feet on contact, I think he’s gotten more comfortable and has a better understanding of what we’re doing offensively.”
After falling behind 49-42 last Saturday due to that fumbled exchange between Hooker and Small, Wright was key to fueling their game-tying touchdown drive. He had six carries for 34 yards on that drive.
It was all forgotten because of the pass interference that saved the Vols and then Hooker’s fifth touchdown pass to Hyatt. However, those 31 yards were part of the first 33 yards the Vols gained on that drive, so Wright sparked it.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the success of the offensive line, which also had its best game last week. However, Heupel touted Wright’s ability to use them properly.
“Those guys are playing blind to what is going on behind them,” he said. “Those guys got to do a great job of delivering those blocks, and I feel like he’s continued to grow in that way.”
Since the bye, Wright has carried it 24 times for 120 yards. The Vols’ running backs play by-committee. Small is still the feature back, particularly in the red zone with his power.
However, Wright and Dylan Sampson are key in the system too. While Wright is the main all-purpose back, Heupel said they look forward to Sampson playing this week after not playing last Saturday against Alabama.
“He’s young in his football development,” Heupel said of Sampson. “He’s going to continue to grow, but for a young running back, he’s got really good understanding of pace, vision, feel, making the right cuts and playing well through contact.”
For the year, Sampson has 20 carries for 103 yards and three touchdowns. He also has a 19-yard grab. However, the LSU Tigers are the only Power Five team he’s seen carries against.
In that one, Sampson had two carries for 14 yards. There was one infamous play, though, where he missed a block, which resulted in Hooker being strip-sacked.
Sampson did make the hustle play to pick up the ball and turn it into a gain, taking the sack off the board. That just shows his ability along with his need to develop as a true freshman.
“Run plays are really important,” Heupel said. “It’s an important play for him to learn from, but he’s a young guy that we love inside of our program.”
While Small gets the scores on the ground and the passing game does what it does, don’t forget about Tennessee football’s all-purpose backs. They drive the offense as much as anybody.