Rocky Topics: Who is the greatest Tennessee running back ever?

There is no shortage of great running backs in the history of Tennessee football. Lewis, Henry, Lauricella, Graham, Majors… and Jalen Hurd?

Photo by Jordan Dajani

Photo by Jordan Dajani

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Co-written by Sean Hood

Tennessee’s football history has been riddled with excellent running backs, spanning from General Neyland’s tenure to today. This week on Rocky Topics, Sean Hood and Matt Raymond discuss the player they think is most deserving of being called the “greatest Tennessee running back ever.”

Hood: Jamal Lewis was recruited by Phillip Fulmer to take the place of running back Jay Graham in 1997. Lewis would not only take the place of Graham, he went on to become the greatest Tennessee back in history. Lewis ran for 1,364 yards as a freshman for a 1997 Tennessee team that went on to win the SEC Championship over Auburn. He was the go-to back in a Volunteer offense that was littered with future NFL talent. The next season saw Lewis suffer a severe knee injury in an early season game against Auburn, but he was still able to run for 497 yards and three touchdowns before sitting out the rest of the season. Lewis amassed 816 yards in another injury-prone 1999 season, finishing with 2,677 yards for his career. What made him so impressive was his ability to put up stats and leave a significant impact, despite the injuries, and being featured in a three-pronged rushing attack along with Travis Henry and Travis Stephens.

Raymond: Lewis was a great back. There’s no arguing that, but in the words of Mr. Lee Corso, “not so fast.” The title of greatest running back ever at Tennessee goes to Jalen Hurd. In two seasons, Hurd has amassed 2,187 yards. He is a mere 891 yards away from breaking the career rushing yards record at Tennessee. In 2015, the Vols’ run game was one of the scariest in the country. Dubbed the “Chain Moving Gang,” Hurd and Alvin Kamara, with the help of quarterback Joshua Dobbs, brought a scary one-two punch that many defenses could not contain. The problem with many of the great running backs in Tennessee history is that they were plagued with injuries – Lewis, to name one. With such a skilled player as Kamara, Hurd doesn’t have to carry the ball 30 times a game like other running backs might, thus lessening the chance of injury.

Hood: Hurd may one day take this title, but as it stands, Lewis was like no Tennessee back before or since. He was able to approach the then-rushing record of James “Little Man” Stewart despite playing in 17 fewer games. His 5-foot-11, 225-pound frame made him a bowling ball on the gridiron, but he could cut on a dime when approaching oncoming traffic. I could list stats all day about the greatness of Lewis, but his presence alone sets him apart from the pack. Simply put, defenders were afraid to tackle him. Hurd is an excellent back, but he lacks the body control, grace, and dynamism of Lewis. His large frame deflected defenders, but his undeniable speed also beat them around the corner when the time came. Lewis was the early-season MVP for the Vols in 1998, putting the offense on his back until Tee Martin gained control. And he always had Georgia’s number. His outstanding game against the ‘Dawgs in 1997 put him at the forefront of Tennessee lore. John Ward coined the phrase, “Give the ball to Jamal,” and Tennessee listened. Lewis’ impact, beyond stats, made him the greatest.

Raymond: The one thing that jumps out at me the most is the number of games played. In his career, Lewis played in 27 games. Hurd has already played in 26 in two years. Unfortunately for Lewis, the reason he isn’t the best ever is because of injuries. This is a problem that plagues many great players, such as Bo Jackson. As mentioned earlier, Tennessee’s running back group is so deep right now, even beyond Hurd and Kamara, that he can often take the fourth quarter off and let some younger guys have a go at it, thus preserving his body and career.

Featured image by Jordan Dajani

Edited by Cody McClure

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Matt is a sophomore journalism and electronic media major at the University of Tennessee. He enjoys watching any and all sports, and is an active member in the Pride of the Southland Marching Band. Follow him on twitter @mattraymond271