Jalin Hyatt is getting all the praise for his five touchdowns and over 200 yards receiving in leading Tennessee football to a victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide. Hendon Hooker’s Heisman train is also building.
However, lost in success of the Vols’ passing game is what the offensive line and tight ends did up front. Against an elite Alabama rush defense, UT averaged over four and a half yards a carry and allowed just one sack.
Keeping Hendon Hooker upright was key to Tennessee football’s success. Superstar edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. had just three tackles, and only one was solo. Center Cooper Mays credited Darnell Wright for that.
“He’s as good as it gets in college football, and I think everybody’s just starting to see it.” Mays said of Wright “I told him months and months ago that there were games he needed to circle.”
Among those circled games were the last three the Vols won: The Florida Gators, LSU Tigers and then Alabama. In all three, Wright delivered.
As the only player on the team who was a five-star recruit, Wright is living up to the hype. He moved back over to right tackle in the offseason after playing left tackle last year, and it’s worked well in SEC play.
“He’s went out there against all those teams and had really good performances,” Mays said. “To basically be man-on blocking by yourself with Will Anderson all game and not have a pressure or anything, or a sack or anything, unreal.”
Although Wright was the main blocker on Anderson, lots of different players saw him throughout the day. After all, the coaches like to move him around.
Even the tight ends were designated with blocking him at times, including Jacob Warren. It made little difference, though, as the whole pass protection unit contained him.
“There was a couple of times where I’m blocking him, and he’s a Heisman candidate,” Warren said. “He’s a good player. He’s strong, he’s physical and he’s fast.”
With five sacks coming into the game, this may have been Anderson’s worst performance. Warren added he doesn’t know if the success was about what the Vols did or Anderson just not playing as well.
In spite of the hype and talent surrounding Anderson, though, Warren said he doesn’t think the Vols avoided him. That wouldn’t make sense anyway given how loaded Alabama’s pass rush is beyond just Anderson.
“You’re not sitting there like, ‘Oh, he’s over there, let’s run it left,'” he said. “That’s not really how you operate in the college sense. In high school you might do that, you have a big recruit or something, you want to run the ball away from him, but in college you just run your plays, and you just trust your guys to go get it done.”
Containing Anderson wasn’t the only part of the Vols winning the physical battles up front. After all, they ran for 182 yards. Their 4.7 yards a carry was a full yard more than any other team has averaged on them this year.
Hooker was a part of that, running for 56 yards. However, Jaylen Wright added 12 carries for 71 yards, and Jabari Small had 12 carries for 53 yards.
Then there’s Princeton Fant, Tennessee football’s starting tight end. He lined up at fullback on a goal-line play and ran it in for a touchdown. Warren said that short run showed just how versatile Fant is.
“He’s able to make jump-cut and then stiff-arm a guy and then run through a dude on the goal-line,” Warren said. “That’s not something a fullback should be able to do. He’s adopted that role of just being that guy that can do it all.”
Fant has played running back and linebacker for the Vols, and he was a quarterback in high school. All of that experience has helped him flourish in Heupel’s system.
In addition to that touchdown run, he had three catches for 24 yards. He also had a key two-point conversion on a shovel-pass in the second half.
“He’s one of those guys that is super athletic and is super physically gifted, so he can do a lot of different things,” Warren said. “He’s fast enough to play wide receiver, he’s big enough to play tight end, and he’s agile enough to play running back.”
As far as the trenches overall, Tennessee football averaged a full yard more per carry on the ground than Alabama and had 68 more rushing yards. Each team had one sack, but the Vols had four tackles for a loss to Alabama’s two.
Again, going into the game, the pass rush was Alabama’s biggest strength, and it was limited in this one. Mays credited the tempo of the Vols’ offense as a huge reason for their success up front.
“Their defense is always winded because there’s nothing you can really do to replicate our tempo,” he said. “A tired offense will beat a tired defense every time, and we’re trained for this. We’re built for this. This is what we do, so I think we really did control it. I think we had a pretty good performance.”
That training is what allowed the Vols to operate a two-minute drive in 15 seconds to set up their game-winning field goal. Mays said they practice those all the time.
Hooker referred to Mays and the blocking as his security detail, which is a huge reason he had over 440 yards of total offense. Mays touted Hooker’s leadership as a reason to block so hard for him.
“There’s definitely a really good connection me and Hendon have because, you know, like I’ve said before, the way Hendon carries himself and how he handles himself, as a man and a leader of our group, you know, anybody would want to go out there and fight for him,” he said. “That’s one of my favorite people on the team, and, you know, just going out there and being on the same page with him, you know, just being able to fight for him, I love doing it.”