The running back position for Tennessee football seems pretty simple. Well, maybe not.
It would be natural to say that Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright will carry the vast majority of the load in 2023 as they did last season. Small and Wright accounted for 1,609 of Tennessee’s 2,593 yards in 2022. Small ran 157 times for 734 yards. Wright rushed for 875 yards on 146 attempts. They should be the easy go-to guys out of the backfield. Well, there is another tailback to consider.
Dylan Sampson averaged more yards per carry, 6.8, than any Vol last year and he was just a freshman. It seems reasonable that Tennessee will find more ways to get the ball in Sampson’s hands given his explosiveness and newfound experience in the Vols’ offense. Sampson had just 58 carries last season. That number could double in 2023.
The Vols were forced to play tight end Princeton Fant at fullback in short-yardage situations last season. With Fant gone to the NFL, the Vols will have to replace him when they need more power in the backfield. Running back Khalifa Keith is a natural fit to fill a power-back role. However, the 6-foot, 235-pound running back from Birmingham, Ala., isn’t slated to join the Vols until this summer.
Tennessee football could turn to another tight end as the Vols did last season with Fant. Jacob Warren is a proven player as a receiver and a blocker. Could he add a power-back role to his arsenal? The Vols also have tight end McCallan Castles to turn to after he transferred from UC-Davis.
Clearly, the Vols have proven depth at tailback after the ascension of Small and Wright last season. However, neither of the two are very big. Much was made of Small’s offseason workout regimen before the 2022 season. He is now thought to be about 215 pounds. Wright is listed at 205. Sampson isn’t big either, just 190 pounds.
It seems apparent that Tennessee’s best option will be to spread the carries among the three tailbacks in spring camp. That could give Sampson a chance for more playing time in the fall.
This is part of a series of position-by-position previews for Tennessee football heading into spring practice, which begins on March 20. For a spring practice preview of Tennessee’s offensive line, click here.