Jabari Small continues to impress against South Alabama

Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright have carried a large load of the Vols’ rushing attack in the absence of Tiyon Evans.

Jabari Small (2) scores a touchdown when Tennessee played South Alabama at Neyland Stadium on Nov. 20, 2021 in Knoxville, TN. Photo/Christian Knox

Jabari Small always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and play college football for the University of Mississippi. In July of 2019, his dreams came true when he committed to head coach Matt Luke’s program at Ole Miss.

However, the Rebels’ season went up in flames, resulting in a 4-8 (2-6 SEC) 2019 season. Luke was fired. This came as a shock to the 3-star running back who had no communication from the school on the new coaching vacancy. The following day, he decommitted.

After narrowing his options down to Tennessee, Texas A&M and Auburn, the Memphis native decided to stay home and play for the Volunteers. He saw limited action in his freshman year under former coach Jeremy Pruitt, but under Josh Heupel’s new regime, he has burst into the spotlight.

Tennessee’s (6-5, 3-4 SEC) 60-14 routing of the South Alabama Jaguars (5-6) was a prime example of the impact Small has made on this Volunteer team. He ran the ball 11 times for 73 yards and two touchdowns in the blowout win. He was also able to scamper for a 28-yard rush in the first quarter to kick-start a drive early in the game. However, as Tennessee’s lead increased, his snap count decreased as backups funneled into the game, and he played just a little over two quarters.

Head coach Josh Heupel said the young running back is just getting started.

“I think Jabari (Small) is just continuing to get better at the running back position. He’s understanding what we’re doing, pressing the line of scrimmage, finishing runs, getting plus two,” said Heupel. “A couple of the runs tonight, into the endzone tonight, for him were competitive plays where the pile is moving late. Some guys are going and continuing to push the pile, but he’s pushing from within. He continues to get better in pass protection, too. He’s a young player that should only continue to get better and obviously, we like him a lot as a player and where he’s at right now, today.”

Small has primarily been the second-string running back for Tennessee this season, but with Tiyon Evans’ lingering injury, he has been thrust into the starting role. He has responded well, totaling 436 rushing yards and four touchdowns along with 75 receiving yards this season.

Now, with Evans announcing his departure after the season, Small will likely be the feature back in Tennessee’s 2022 offense. With two years at Tennessee under his belt and multiple games played as a starter, this move could be a strong fit for Small. He will be joined by Jaylen Wright, who has seen an increase in playtime as a backup with Evans out.

Wright took the most handoffs against South Alabama, amassing 83 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. He was rated a 3-star prospect out of high school, but he has compiled an impressive freshman year as a reserve. His touchdown rush against the Jaguars was his third on the season.

“(Wright) is continuing to grow as a football player,” said Heupel. “Without looking at the tape here, I’d say tonight was probably his best football game in some ways. He’s going to continue to grow as he grows into the player he is capable of.”

Tennessee will be back in action on Saturday for a matchup with their in-state foe, Vanderbilt. Small will likely receive a large load of the carries as the Vols look to fend off an upset and improve to seven wins. The game kicks off at 3:45 and will air on SECN.

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Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at rsylvia@vols.utk.edu