Mack issues positive injury update on Tennessee’s running backs – 247Sports

  • September 21, 2022

Tennessee came out of its easy win against Akron last week with a couple of injury concerns in its thin backfield. Down to four scholarship running backs after the offseason injury to Len’Neth Whitehead, the Vols had Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson pick up minor injuries during the 63-6 win against the Zips, but running backs coach Jerry Mack had a positive update on his position group after Tuesday’s practice. He said all four backs were “full speed, full go” as Tennessee prepared for Saturday’s SEC opener against Florida, but added the Vols are working their contingency plans, which included tight end Princeton Fant getting some snaps at running back.
Small left the Akron game after being shaken up on the second play. He appeared to be favoring his right arm or shoulder after a collision, and though SEC Network sideline reporter Ashley Stroehlein reported he was available to return, Tennessee sensibly held Small out for the rest of the game. Sampson appeared to tweak his ankle while being tackled midway through the third quarter after totaling 57 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.
The healthier half of Tennessee’s backfield consists of Jaylen Wright, the team’s leading rusher through three games (45 carries for 231 yards and three touchdowns) and freshman Justin Williams-Thomas, whose only playing time has come at the end of the blowouts of Ball State and Akron.
“Right now we’re all available and ready for practice,” Mack said. “Everybody was out there today full-speed, full-go. Guys looked really good. A couple of them, we’ve just got to be smart with how we rep them. Some of those injuries or some of those things that happened in the game, just bumps and bruises, wear and tear over the course of the game.”
Dealing with backfield injuries and absences became second nature for Mack and Tennessee last season, when Small dealt with a shoulder injury from the second game on, Whitehead and Wright dealt with injuries at various points and Tiyon Evans (now at Louisville) was in and out of the lineup most of the season, so this staff is accustomed with dealing with the situation it is facing this week ahead of the showdown with the Gators.
“We’ve kind of been through this battle before as far as rotating guys, making sure we do a great job of prepping guys throughout the week,” Mack said. “A big part of that is how we go about prepping them as far as in the meetings, on the practice field, because we’ve got to be smart. We can’t wear their bodies down just because we’re a body or two not available at some practices. We’ve kind of got a good plan. We’ve kind of got some precedents as far as from last year.”
Mack’s updates certainly were positive, particularly at this early stage of the week. Shoulders and ankles can be tricky injuries for running backs, who naturally are dealing with the bumps and bruises that come with playing that position. It’s hard to make it through a whole season without dealing with those things, so both coaches and players will know how to handle it – Sampson is a freshman, but he can lean on older teammates Small and Wright for guidance and advice.
Though he’s been outperformed by Wright, Tennessee’s backfield looks different if Small is available as it takes just a little bit of pressure off the two freshmen, though Sampson has performed well when given playing time this season.
“He was able to do everything,” Mack said of Small. “He finished the entire practice, 21 or 22 periods, whatever we had. He did every part of practice. We didn’t have to limit him from a standpoint of because of his health – it was more of us being smart with just the workload, and that’s no different than what we normally do during the course of the week.
“We’re always monitoring those guys’ workload with our GPS system that we have on those guys to make sure that we’re not overworking them so they can be prepared. It was a little hotter than normal, than we expected, at practice, so just making sure body maintenance post-practice and before meetings and things like that, they do a good job of getting in the cold tub and getting in the treatment room and doing those types of things.”
With a couple of beat-up backs, it might not take much for Tennessee to get pushed into emergency territory, which explains why Fant got some looks at running back on Tuesday. It’s not the first time he’s done it and likely won’t be the last given the lack of numbers for the Vols at running back. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound sixth-year senior played running back in 2018 before moving to tight end.
“P-Fant did a good job today taking some reps in the backfield for us, alternating time between tight end and running back,” Mack said. “Looked really good, actually, today. Just kind of getting him ready and always having an emergency guy. You’ve always got to have a contingency plan for anything that may happen.”
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