Tennessee’s Jabari Small overcame the offseason challenge of gaining weight. Now, he’s overcoming the challenge of being an all-around tailback.
“He has been good without the ball in his hands (in) pass protection,” UT coach Josh Heupel said. “He has been good as a receiver when we’ve asked him to. I thought last week was probably his most physical running, putting his pads down, continuing to move the pile and getting plus-two (yards) after contact.
“We have great trust in him, and expect him to have a huge part of this game.”
That’s become obvious. Small has received the lion’s share of the carries for the Vols when the game is in question and he hasn’t been sidelined with an injury, which was the case briefly against Akron.
Small ran for 90 yards on 13 carries against Florida. That was a step in the right direction after an apparent shoulder injury sidelined him for the vast majority of the game against the Zips. Playing the Gators – or anyone – was much more enjoyable than peddling a recumbent bicycle.
“I think the o-line did a good job of giving me seams to run through,” Small said. “My main focus was just getting downhill and just hitting the hole hard. I know in the SEC those holes close pretty quickly. I was just ready to get back on the field. I was just happy to be back out there.”
The task will be tougher this week with LSU on the docket. Florida is dead last in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 193 yards per game. LSU allows about half as many rushing yards per game, 109, and is ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing defense.
“They’re a good team,” Small said. “They’re a good front seven. Very physical, SEC type of an opponent. I think we saw a good bit of that against Pitt and Florida so it’s just a unique challenge. We can’t think too much about it. Just play and compete to the highest level.”
Small’s offseason regimen that added 15 pounds of bulk will be tested in the weeks to come. With their lone bye week behind them, the Vols will play eight consecutive weeks.
“I’ve learned to embrace it,” Small said. “I think last year, I noticed we had a pretty tough schedule. That’s just how Tennessee is, we play the best teams every year.
“Nothing is easy about our schedule, nothing is easy about how we win. We have to earn everything. I am very excited about it and it’s a challenge.”
Next challenge up? Small seems ready.