Tennessee football has seen better days. After a dispiriting loss to South Carolina on Saturday, rumors began swirling that players were on their way out of the program. While most turned out to be false, one was true. Star running back Jalen Hurd — who was sixth in school history in career rushing yards — was planning to transfer. Fans were understandably concerned — Hurd has struggled this season and appeared to be injured, but he was still a major part of the offense.
Despite his status as the team’s lead back, life after Hurd shouldn’t be too terrible for the Volunteers. In fact, his departure could actually be beneficial for a struggling team.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord has come under near-constant criticism from fans for his conservative and predictable style of play calling. His tendency to call runs straight up the middle with Hurd frustrated fans — Hurd is a strong, talented runner, but it puts him in a bad situation when opposing teams can predict when and where he is going to run. The predictability of the offense combined with shaky offensive line play meant that Hurd was often fighting off tackles just to make it to the line of scrimmage or to pick up a modest gain. Occasionally, he had space or bowled past defenders to pick up a big gain, but he just wasn’t consistent enough on a carry-to-carry basis.
That certainly isn’t entirely Hurd’s fault, but DeBord can’t be completely blamed for it, either. The conservative nature and predictability of his play calling remain an issue, but it wasn’t the only thing holding Hurd back. At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Hurd is built for power running. Unfortunately for him, Tennessee runs a spread offense. They tried some looks in the I-Formation — an offense that Hurd’s running style is perhaps better suited for — early in the season, but quarterback Josh Dobbs struggled and the Vols abandoned it. Hurd is talented enough to run and succeed in any formation, but he wasn’t a great fit in the Tennessee offense.
His backup, on the other hand, is.
Since joining Tennessee’s football program, Alvin Kamara has dazzled fans with his speed and ability to make defenders miss. That agility and shiftiness make him a much more natural fit in the Vols’ spread offense — he may not be able to fight through and break tackles the way Hurd can, but he’s able to find space and rattle off a huge gain more consistently. Kamara’s spectacular performance as the lead back against Texas A&M when Hurd was injured showed just what he’s capable of. It’s no coincidence that the most explosive and dangerous Tennessee’s offense has looked all season came in College Station with Kamara taking the lead.
Unfortunately for the Vols, though, Kamara is injured and it’s unclear when he’ll be back, if at all. That injury makes Hurd’s departure hurt more than it already does — if each of Tennessee’s top two running backs are gone, who can Dobbs hand the ball off to?
Enter John Kelly.
Kelly, a sophomore from Detroit, has served as the Vols’ third runner since the first game of his career, when he rushed for 29 yards on eight carries in a blowout win against Bowling Green. He’s always looked talented in the limited time he was given, and he’s poised to become the starter in the backfield until Kamara can recover from his injury. At 5-foot-9, Kelly is the smallest of the three backs, but his running style seems to take elements from both of the players above him on the depth chart. His speed is reminiscent of Kamara, and his ability to fight off tackles makes him look like a miniature Hurd at times. Of course, he’s not as fast as Kamara, or as strong as Hurd, but his style might be a beautiful blend that fits perfectly in Tennessee’s spread offense.
If nothing else, Kelly’s stretch as the starter will help the Vols prepare for a time when both of their star backs from the last two years are gone — Hurd has obviously already left, and Kamara could easily enter the next NFL Draft. If that happens, Kelly’s added experience will be vitally important.
It’s easy to freak out about Jalen Hurd leaving Knoxville, and that makes sense. A star player leaving his program to change positions in the middle of a season is a major red flag. As far as actual play on the field goes, however, the Vols could even be better off without him.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics