Hendon Hooker was the story last Saturday as Tennessee football beat the Missouri Tigers 66-24 on Senior Day. However, the Vols may have found a third running back to add to their rotation.
Dylan Sampson had already shown flashes throughout the year of being able to back up Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright. In this game, though, he proved he belonged in the rotation.
A huge story of the win was how the Vols dominated the Mizzou defensive line on the ground with 264 yards and over seven yards per carry. Sampson led everybody in both categories.
“You saw a little bit of what we’ve been seeing the entire fall camp and basically the season at practice,” Jerry Mack said of Sampson’s performance. “I’m glad he got a chance to showcase his talents on Saturday.”
Against Mizzou, Sampson had six carries for 98 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t all mop-up duty either. After the Vols went up 35-24 and got the ball back, Sampson had a key 42-yard run and then a 15-yard run to set up their next touchdown.
However, what stood out to Mack, and what has held Sampson back, was his improved pass-blocking. Continuing to get better in that area is what could get him on the field more often going forward.
“That’s one thing we know as a young back he’s been consistently working on,” Mack said. “He stepped up, he fit the guy up. That’s all you can ask for right now, you know? If he had to be more physical, I think he would have been able to be more physical at the point of attack.”
The development was clear over what happened a month earlier. In the Vols’ win over the LSU Tigers, Sampson missed a key block the resulted in a strip-sack.
Sampson did do his part to recover that fumble and turn it into a surprise gain. Mack said his improvement in blocking since then speaks to his character.
“The way he prepared, the way he attacked practice, the way he attacked the film room throughout the week, that was most impressive,” he said. “I thought what he did, ever since that LSU game, he’s been in the field room more. He’s determined not to make that same mistake twice, and that’s what you want from any young player.”
For the year, Sampson has 42 carries for 264 yards and five touchdowns, but last Saturday was by far his best performance. He has another two catches for 26 yards.
Small referred to Sampson as his “little brother” and said he is always positive and has consistent work habits. An injury to Small made Sampson more crucial Saturday.
“He’s very wise for his age, so for him to step in and just make the best of his opportunity, it was very refreshing to see,” Small said of Sampson. “He just played to his skill set, didn’t let the moment get too big for him, and I thought he did very well.”
It’s a bit unexpected that Sampson would be the breakout star for Tennessee football. Fellow freshman running back Justin Williams-Thomas was a more highly touted back.
However, Sampson appeared to be more ready despite having the profile of an all-purpose back similar to Wright. The Vols have added a crucial new element to their offense with his commitment.