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VOL. 41 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 18, 2017

Freshman impact: Vols’ all-time best rookie running backs

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Had freshman Jamal Lewis been better at picking up the blitz, UT might have gone undefeated and played for a national championship in 1997.

-- Utsports.Com

Butch Jones let us in on a little secret recently when he said his freshman running backs will play for Tennessee this season. That’s plural – running backs. Jones’ plan is to use all three freshman backs – Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman – in some sort of rotation behind junior John Kelly. Given the nature of the game, putting the football in the hands of freshmen is risky business. But Jones is taking the plunge.

“All three are going to have to play, and they’re going to be important to the success of our season,” Jones says.

“I see them continuing to get better and better and not just in terms of running the football but in pass protection and also in playing on the perimeter.”

It is a decision born of necessity. While Kelly closed with a flourish last season (421 of his 630 yards came in the final five games), the depth chart at running back was lacking until the recruiting class of 2016 arrived on campus.

It’s been years since the Vols signed three running backs in the same class. Jones signed just one running back in each of the previous two classes – Alvin Kamara in 2015 and Carlin Fils-Aime in 2016.

Kelly likes what he has seen out of the freshmen. He calls them “little pit bulls.”

“They’re just holding the chains back, trying to make sure they don’t bite everybody,” he says. “… These freshmen running backs, they’re physical right now, definitely a lot more physical than the running backs we’ve had in the past.”

Chandler, who prepped at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, hit the UT campus amid great expectations. He ran for a combined 4,810 yards and 70 touchdowns in his final two high school seasons. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, he hits the hole in a hurry and quickly reaches top-end speed. He also carries a bit more power than expected.

Jordan has raised some eyebrows, in part because many did not view him as a big-time prospect when he arrived from Bartow High in Winter Haven, Florida.

Both Rivals.com and Scout.com rated Jordan a two-star prospect in their five-star systems. The website 24/7 Sports ranked him the No. 244 prospect in the state of Florida.

As for Coleman, he flew under the radar during the recruiting process but has been impressive in preseason training camp. He has great hands as a receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

Most observers expected one or more of the freshman backs to be redshirted this season, but Jones has stated otherwise.

During the John Majors’ coaching regime, it was common for freshmen to redshirt. And running backs were no exception. That included such talents as Chuck Webb and Reggie Cobb.

They hit it big as redshirt freshmen, not true freshmen.

But that changed in 1991.

The Vols were short of experienced running backs so two talented true freshmen – James “Little Man” Stewart and Aaron Hayden – were pressed into action. They alternated at tailback in a season-opening victory at Louisville and finished the season with a combined 1,643 yards and 15 touchdowns. Each averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

While many coaches will tell you that running back is the easiest position to learn and play as a true freshman, don’t try telling that to Travis Henry. Henry may be UT’s career rushing leader, but he managed only four yards on two carries as a freshman in 1997.

Henry later acknowledged he was not prepared for the college game as a freshman – and it showed.

In contrast, Jamal Lewis was ready for whatever came his way that same season. He should have started from Day 1. However, coach Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe were concerned about Lewis’ recognition of blitzes in the passing game and brought him along slowly.

It is still fair to second-guess their decision to stick with Mark Levine as the starter at tailback for the game at Florida that season. Fulmer later explained that the coaching staff felt it needed a more experienced back in order to pick up the constant blitzes by the Gators, where Bob Stoops was then defensive coordinator.

The 33-20 defeat at The Swamp was UT’s only loss of the regular season. Might the impact of Lewis as a runner have altered things?

We’ll never know.

By season’s end, Lewis had 1,364 rushing yards, easily the most ever by a true freshman running back at UT.

Other true freshman backs have had major impacts at UT. Although Jalen Hurd’s time as a Vol is remembered for its inglorious end (he quit the team after the South Carolina game last season and has since transferred to Baylor), let’s not forget his impact as a freshman.

In 2014, Hurd ran for 899 yards and also had 221 receiving yards, scoring seven touchdowns in the process. He set the tone for the TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa with 88 yards and two TDs in the first quarter.

This, then, is my ranking of the top 10 true freshmen running backs at UT over the last three decades:

Jamal Lewis, 1997: He arrived on campus looking like anything but a freshman. Lewis was a rare combination of size, strength and speed. He ran with an edge, taking on defenders at every turn. He ran for 1,364 yards that season, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

James “Little Man” Stewart, 1991: Although he split carries with fellow freshman Aaron Hayden, Stewart totaled 939 yards that season. With his ability to vault over a pile of blockers and would-be tacklers, Stewart was especially effective on the goal line. He scored eight rushing touchdowns as a freshman.

Arian Foster, 2005: He arrived from San Diego with an eccentric personality and loads of talent. Foster averaged 4.8 yards per carry on his way to 879 yards as freshman. Foster burned Vanderbilt on a 66-yard run at the close of the regular season.

LaMarcus Coker, 2006: A year after Foster hit it big as a freshman, Coker debuted in similar fashion. He brought track speed to the tailback spot and averaged 6.4 yards per carry on his way to a 696-yard season.

Jalen Hurd, 2014: Hurd was the first five-star recruit for Butch Jones and quickly made an impact on the offense, running for 899 yards. Although the Vols were clearly outclassed in their trip to Oklahoma that season, Hurd carried 14 times for 97 yards in what proved to be his breakout game.

Aaron Hayden, 1991: Hayden ran for 704 yards while alternating with James Stewart at tailback. The most memorable play of his freshman year came in the “Miracle at South Bend” rally against Notre Dame when he turned a screen pass from Andy Kelly into a 26-yard scoring play for what proved to be the decisive touchdown.

Rajion Neal, 2010: He played in 10 games as a freshman and carried 46 times for 197 yards while also catching seven passes for another 100 yards. Neal burned Georgia on a 58-yard reception that set up a touchdown.

Cedric Houston, 2001: Fellow Vols freshmen Jabari Davis and Derrick Tinsley were viewed as better prospects, Houston had a greater impact as a freshman and in the seasons that followed. Although he played in only three games, Houston averaged 5.9 yards per carry and had 20-yard bursts against both Memphis and Vanderbilt.

Marlon Lane, 2011: He made an immediate impact as a runner and receiver, rushing for 280 yards and catching 17 passes for 161 yards. Lane scored touchdowns in his first three college games, the first UT player to do so since Reggie Cobb in 1987.

Bryce Brown, 2009: Heralded as the nation’s No. 1 recruit by Rivals.com, Brown backed up Montario Hardesty and ran for 460 yards, scoring three touchdowns. After Lane Kiffin left and Derek Dooley arrived as coach, Brown transferred to Kansas State.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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