Quotes: Small and Wright Back to Lead Explosive Running Back Group

Quotes: Small and Wright Back to Lead Explosive Running Back Group

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – As the 2023 season opener inches closer, the Tennessee football team wrapped up preseason practice No. 13 on Friday morning at Haslam Field.

One of the most impressive groups throughout preseason camp has been the running backs, featuring an ideal mix of veteran returners and ultra-talented newcomers, giving the Vols a deeper and more versatile room than in years past.

The dynamic duo of senior Jabari Small and junior Jaylen Wright, both of whom were named preseason candidates for the Doak Walker Award, will be looked upon to replicate the production they had a season ago when they helped UT lead the nation in scoring (46.1 points per game) and finish third nationally in rushing touchdowns (40).

Small is back for his fourth season with the program and continues to be the “quiet leader” of the room, leading by example on and off the field.

“He is not a ‘rah-rah’ guy. Jabari is not going to be the loudest all the time, he just kind of leads by example,” running backs coach Jerry Mack said following Friday’s practice. “He is the first one in the meetings, he brings a pad, he is taking notes, and guys respect those guys that are pros … His teammates understand that ‘this guy right here, that is who I would like to be like,’ from a standpoint of just the way he goes about carrying his business.”  

After leading the team in rushing last year, Wright has continued to raise his game to the next level, drawing rave reviews from UT’s coaches as well as his teammates throughout the offseason and fall camp.

“In high school, he just was not an all-around runner,” Mack said. “He was not an every-down back, and that is what you have seen, him really being intentional about trying to work those deficiencies that he needs to work on.

“He is going to be one of the poster boys in our program, I think, for a guy that came in extremely raw on and off the field, and now what you’ve see is him grow into a complete player, on and off the field.” 

While Small and Wright carried the bulk of the load last season, Dylan Sampson flashed as a true freshman, showcasing his elite athleticism while giving the Vols yet another dangerous weapon out of the backfield. The sophomore speedster has added weight and strength this offseason and will look to increase his role in a crowded running back room.

“Dylan can do everything for us,” Mack said. “Dylan can go flex out in the slot, he can play in the backfield, obviously. From a pass pro, that is probably one of the things that [you] just have to make sure that Dylan is spot on with what he is supposed to do … He is not afraid of contact. Samp could play corner if he really wanted to. He will stick his face in there, and he is not afraid of it.” 

Despite a strong core of returners, Tennessee also added three talented freshmen to the room this season in Cameron SeldonKhalifa Keith and DeSean Bishop, all of which have flashed during fall camp and have ability to make an immediate impact while providing some much-needed depth for one of the most physically demanding positions on the field.

A full transcript of Mack’s post-practice media availability along with select player quotes can be found below.
 

Running Backs Coach Jerry Mack

On Jaylen Wright’s improved vision…  
“A lot of good things; Jaylen Wright has grown tremendously as an inside-the-tackle runner. When he first got here, he was a guy that really wanted to bounce runs. A lot of that is probably what they asked him to do in high school. What you see now is a guy that is a lot more attentive about going through the hole, pressing the double team, things like that. All those different things, running through the smoke, that is what we have talked about a lot with J-Wright. The last couple of years, you’ve just seen the growth in his game a ton.” 

On Cameron Seldon’s growth over the summer and during fall camp…  
“Every practice, he gets a little bit better. Not having the baseline like I talked about in the spring, working with him over the summertime, working with him all through camp, [and] being able to get quality reps. I talk about it at the staff meeting a lot of times; Cam is a guy that needs to play in front of the big five linemen as much as humanly possible. Every opportunity he gets to have those guys in front of him, understanding leverage and understanding pad level, that is going to be huge for him. The only way he is going to continue to grow is just continuing to play football. He is really good out in space on the perimeter; I think he has a comfort zone there. But at the end of the day, [he is] a big, strong, physical guy. If he keeps developing as a runner, he has a chance to be a really good player.”  

On Jabari Small perfecting his craft as a veteran…  
“The first thing was Jabari understanding some of his deficiencies, and that is the health piece. He got that addressed in the offseason. The next part is, all these guys have aspirations to go onto the National Football League, and he has approached – on the field and off the field – he has really approached everything like a pro. I have seen tremendous growth in the meeting rooms, not only just what his assignment is and what he wants to do, but Jabari is also very good at understanding the blocking schemes, understanding what the offensive lineman’s job is, what the receiver’s job is, all those different things. He has really grown in the offense going into year three. Understanding his job and his responsibility is pretty easy; now he is trying to be a pro and an expert and understand the whole of how everything fits together.”  

On how DeSean Bishop’s injury affects his development…  
“Obviously, you need reps to actually get better, and we are a little heartbroken about that, because that guy was really doing a good job for us. He was coming along; we had really high hopes for him in the first part of the season. Hopefully, he will get the opportunity to come back this season at some point in time. I do think you treat it like a redshirt year. It is a chance for him to get in the meeting room, it is a chance for him to continue to grow his baseline as far as our system and what we want, and I have no reserve about saying he is going to come back in the spring and be a different player, just for the simple fact he is going to understand all the ins and outs, things that he did not understand quite as well during the previous spring.”  

On if he has a feeling for how many running backs he can realistically play…  
“The running back position, just through attrition, sometimes guys get bumps and bruises. We all feel like those guys are three-down backs, so we feel like they can play every down. We do not have to rotate guys in for short yardage, pass pro and things like that; all of them have grown. Right now, it is really tough to say. How we have played here in the past, we rotated and usually had a two-headed monster. Dylan Sampson was able to get into the rotation last year and really had some great success. It really just depends on the flow of the game. One thing about running backs, if a guy has a hot hand, you want to keep him in, so that is no different than what we are trying to do. If a guy is really in a rhythm, I would be crazy to take that guy out. I have to continue to get the most out of him while he is in a rhythm. But I do foresee we are going to need all those guys as the season progresses.” 

On the interchangeability of Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small  
“They definitely are more interchangeable than a year ago. Jaylen has really grown as a pass protector, he has grown with his hands, he can catch the ball out of the backfield now. Jabari has grown as a pass protector, so I do not feel like he has a lot of deficiencies from that aspect. The goal is to always recruit and always have three-down backs in your room, guys you feel are athletic enough to catch the ball out of the backfield. But at the same time, those short yardage situations and those pass pro situations where you know you are going to get those some of those exotics and things like that, that those guys are stout enough, big enough and strong enough to hold up and not get blown back into the quarterback. I think over the years, that is what you have seen; both of them are playing at a really high level right now.” 

On the factors that have gone into Jaylen Wright’s leap…  
“In high school, he just was not an all-around runner. He was not an every-down back, and that is what you have seen, him really being intentional about trying to work those deficiencies that he needs to work on. He is going to be one of the poster boys in our program, I think, for a guy that came in extremely raw on and off the field, and now what you’ve see is him grow into a complete player, on and off the field.” 

On load management with Jabari Small heading into the season… 
“Jabari is a guy that had no reps really in the spring at all. He hadn’t played football before this camp since the bowl game in December. A little bit different than the Jacob Warren situation, Jabari needed to get hit. You saw last year what happened to Jaylen Wright, he didn’t practice all of camp and had some fumbling issues earlier in the season. We learn from our mistakes as coaches, so make sure that now, Jabari is going to get in there. He’s taking some inside drill, which normally he doesn’t take. He needs to feel that pad-on-pad and be able to finish plays. He has wanted that. He saw what happened to Jaylen last year, and he didn’t want that to happen to him this year. He has embraced the contact more than anything else.” 

On early impressions of Khalifa Keith  
“Big, strong, powerful guy. He is everything that, when we recruited him, we thought he could be. He came in about 225 or 230 [pounds]; he has continued to maintain about that body weight, and he can move with it and make plays with it. One thing about him, he does have really good hands. He was a former basketball player in high school, too. Really athletic; his deal is really just learning our system and how we go about doing things here at Tennessee. I think as a player, you are going to see that guy involved in a lot of special teams this year. Coach [Ekeler] is extremely excited about his role and what he can be. As a runner, he is a lot further along than I really even anticipated right now. Running between the tackles, people do not want to come up and tackle him too much. He just has to continue to learn, to play his way into shape more than anything else. He is going to contribute this year for us in some kind of capacity.”  

On Jaylen Wright’s ball security…  
“He really locked in probably about midseason last year. After the LSU game, I do not think he had any more issues as far as the ball not coming out. I do think a lot of that was not being able to get hit at all during the month of August and not understanding that impact and where those bodies were going to come from all the time. Taking some of those things for granted a little bit, squeezing the ball, making sure it is secure. I think a lot of it was those issues; honestly, I have not seen him fumble even in practice at all since probably midseason of last year.”  

On what Dylan Sampson would need to do to become a regular player…  
“Dylan can do everything for us. Dylan can go flex out in the slot, he can play in the backfield, obviously. From a pass pro, that is probably one of the things that [you] just have to make sure that Dylan is spot on with what he is supposed to do. Samp has increased his weight; he is about 195 pounds now. Still probably a little bit lighter than we would like, but it is increasing. But the biggest thing for him is going to be in pass pro; he has to be able to eat up the cushion. Do not let those 230 or 240-pound linebackers get started. Stop those guys before they can get their feet moving and drive and close that cushion, and then go ahead and strike. He is not afraid of contact; Samp could play corner if he really wanted to. He will stick his face in there, and he is not afraid of it.” 

On how Jabari Small has garnered the respect of his teammates…  
“He is a quiet leader; he is not a ‘rah-rah’ guy. Jabari is not going to be the loudest all the time; he just kind of leads by example. He is the first one in the meetings, he brings a pad, he is taking notes, and guys respect those guys that are pros. They look at those guys, and everybody thinks you have to be the guy that is always loud and always rallying the troops, and that is just not Jabari’s demeanor. That is not his personality, but I have seen him continue to come out of his comfort zone and continue to grow as a leader here since we have been at Tennessee. I think that is a compliment to him; he has great parents, so he knows what he has to do to take that next step. And the teammates see it; his teammates understand that ‘this guy right here, that is who I would like to be like,’ from a standpoint of just the way he goes about carrying his business.”  
 

Senior RB Jabari Small

On if he is itching to get onto the field after missing spring practice… 
“Obviously I haven’t played in a long time. I’m excited to get back out there and get into the groove of things. I’m just trying to push myself to get better from last year and become more physical as a player. I’m just itching to get back out there.” 

On how Jaylen Wright has changed as a player… 
“After the LSU game last year, I think he’s grown and is now playing with confidence. When you’re playing with confidence, you figure things out. I think that’s came together for him. He’s been really fun to watch. He’s a really fun player, he’s physical, plays with that edge and he has that dog in him.” 

On where he feels like this offense is as they are getting closer to the season starting… 
“With 13 practices in, we are definitely in the dog days of camp. Right now, we are just going against ourselves. We have to push ourselves, fight to get in shape and play when we are hurt or sore. I think that’s where we are right now as an offense, and I think the defense is doing a great job of pushing us. The defense is giving us great looks. I think we are on time as far as being ready for the season, but I think we are at that part in training camp. We have practice 14 ahead of us, and we are at that point in camp where we are just pushing ourselves and trying to fight through.” 
 

Junior RB Jaylen Wright

On his progression last season after the LSU game… 
“Last year, I kind of took it upon myself. I changed the way I came in the building; I changed the way I came working. Just work hard, just changed my mindset towards things.” 

On his physical improvement since his freshman year… 
“I’m different in probably every aspect. I’m different in my mindset, I’m different in my weight, I’m different in the way I run. I became more physical, more elusive.” 

On how he’s grown as a pass protector… 
“Became more physical. I feel like pass pro is a mindset, it’s just the way you come thinking of it. You just have to think, just be physical. I attacked the weight room, my strength, my body size, that changed.” 

-UT Athletics

Vols RB Jabari Small / Credit: UT Athletics

Headlines

What's happening

MEDIC Regional Blood Center has Critical Need for Blood O Blood Types

MEDIC Regional Blood Center has Critical Need for Blood O Blood Types

Medic needs your help this June! Donate blood between now and June 14th and receive free Ripley’s Aquarium tickets while supplies lasts. June 14th is National Blood Donor Day! Receive a FREE Tennessee Blood Donor themed BEACH TOWEL when you donate blood the entire month of June while supplies lasts!

Paint It Forward! (with McLain’s Painting Service)

Paint It Forward! (with McLain’s Painting Service)

NewsTalk 98.7 is teaming up with McLain’s Painting Service to help “Paint It Forward” this spring. Nominate your favorite Non-profit organization to get a fresh coat of paint up to $10,000 provided by Sherwin Williams!

Heart- 8/24/24

Heart- 8/24/24

Heart- Saturday, August 24th- Food City Center at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tickets on sale now!

Free NewsTalk 98.7 App

Free NewsTalk 98.7 App

Take WOKI with you wherever you go with the free NewsTalk 98.7 App, available on the App Store and Google Play!