FOOTBALL: UT vs SO ALA

Jabari Small (2) secures the ball as he nears the goal line early in UT’s 60-14 win over South Alabama.

KNOXVILLE — During Tennessee’s preseason camp in August, coach Josh Heupel made a distinction between tailbacks Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans.

While Heupel credited Evans with power and the ability to run between the tackles, he cited Small as “a little bit smaller, a little bit shiftier” and called the pair a “one-two punch” in the backfield.

With Evans out due to injury, Small provided both punches for the Vols during their 60-14 win over South Alabama on Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The sophomore totaled 73 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, with both of his scores coming in situations that called for the type of powerful, downhill runs that were Evans’ forte to start the season.

“I think Jabari has just continued to get better at the running back position,” Heupel said after Saturday’s game. “Understanding what we’re doing, pressing the line of scrimmage, finishing runs, getting plus-two.”

Small scored the first touchdown for Tennessee (6-5) less than five minutes into the game, running into the end zone from a yard out. The goal-line carry may have been reserved for Evans had he been healthy, but with Small now serving as the Vols’ lead tailback, he got the nod there.

He was given the ball in a similar situation in the third quarter, pounding in a 3-yard rushing touchdown early in the second half. Several offensive linemen helped out, pushing the pile to ensure Small found paydirt, but Heupel noticed the running back’s own efforts to get himself past the goal line.

“A couple of the runs tonight into the end zone for (Small) were competitive plays where the pile is moving late,” Heupel said. “Some guys go in and continue to push the pile, but he’s pushing from within.”

As the Vols continued to blow out the Jaguars (5-6), other running backs helped take the load from Small. Freshman Jaylen Wright, who scored the Vols’ second touchdown with a 17-yard carry in the first quarter, led the team in rush attempts with 13, while redshirt freshman Len’Neth Whitehead had six carries and a touchdown himself.

“With Tiyon not being available here the last couple weeks, Jaylen’s growth has been important and getting him back healthy and him continuing to grow as a football player … He’s going to continue to grow as he grows into the player that he is capable of (being),” Heupel said.

The versatility of Tennessee’s starting tailback, though, played a big part in allowing Wright and Whitehead those opportunities to grow.

Small is second on the roster with 509 rushing yards, just 16 less than Evans’ total; the two are tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns with six each. If Evans continues to be held out due to injury, it’s highly likely Small will surpass him in both touchdowns and yards next week against Vanderbilt, which has one of the worst defenses in the country statistically.

After joining the Vols as a 3-star prospect from Briarcrest Christian School and logging 26 carries for 117 yards as a freshman, Small has the second-most carries (99) for Tennessee this season, trailing only dual-threat quarterback Hendon Hooker (137).

While the original plan was for he and Evans to combine their talents this season, Small has proven he can bring both finesse and power to the Vols’ backfield, and he keeps improving in his role as the season progresses.

“(Small) continues to get better in pass protection too,” Heupel said. “He’s a young player that should only continue to get better and obviously we like him a lot as a player where he’s at right now today.”

Follow @TylerWombles on Twitter for more from sports reporter Tyler Wombles.

Tyler is a sports reporter at The Daily Times. A University of Tennessee alumnus, he previously was the newspaper's cops/courts reporter, as well as the sports editor at The Advocate & Democrat, a fellow APG publication.

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