Alvin Kamara's development mirrors Antonio Brown under Butch Jones
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones has always had an eye for talent.
The fourth-year Tennessee head coach specializes in identifying a player’s attributes and using his strengths in some capacity to help his team. Sometimes that means switching positions. Other times, it means expanding roles.
Almost always, it means success.
When Alvin Kamara announced that he was transferring back into the SEC from Hutchinson (Kansas) CC, after leaving Alabama, the instant analysis was that Tennessee’s offense would become more versatile. The former Alabama running back totaled 1,469 yards of total offense and scored 21 total touchdowns at Hutchinson.
Kamara proved last season that he is as advertised, even at the SEC level. Who knows what might have been if the 5-foot-10, 215-pound running back had stayed at Alabama under Nick Saban and in Lane Kiffin’s offense?
But with Jones’ track record of showcasing versatile players in his offense, Kamara is probably better off on Rocky Top than in Tuscaloosa in becoming a complete player.
Just like another former Jones player: Antonio Brown.
Last season was a good season for Kamara: 107 rushes for 698 yards and seven touchdowns, along with 34 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns, followed by his teammates respect after transferring in.
“He has really become the voice of the offense,” Jones said during last season’s fall camp.
His leadership and play led to becoming a team captain in 2016.
With high expectations surrounding Team 120 this season, Kamara’s development is a bit like pressing rewind for Jones. Rewinding to his Central Michigan head coaching days from 2007-2009, the glory days of Antonio Brown.
Brown was a small high school quarterback from Miami. Jones persuaded him to come to Central Michigan, as a walk-on, no less. But climate wasn’t the only change awaiting Brown. Jones saw Brown’s abilities as a pass-catcher. Brown quickly made an impact by reeling in 102 receptions for 1,003 receiving yards and scoring six touchdowns in 2007.
The next season, Brown’s receiving statistics dropped slightly, but for good reason. Jones involved him in the running game. He had 20 rushing touches for 116 yards to go with 93 receptions for 998 yards and seven touchdowns.
His game evolved even more the following season, Brown’s last one at Central Michigan. He had 42 rushes for 341 yards and three touchdowns to go with 110 receptions for 1,198 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
Brown received All-American honors in 2008 and 2009 as a returner. In 2009, he returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns.
Pittsburgh drafted Brown in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and he’s become a four-time Pro Bowler and one of the league’s most dangerous wideouts.
It was a winding road, but Kamara is on a similar path in Knoxville. With an assist from Brown. They worked out together this past offseason, in Miami.
“They hear Antonio Brown stories all the time,” Jones told The Tennessean. “And now (Kamara) is able to meet up with him.”
And, like Brown, Kamara’s duty list continues to expand.
He had never fielded punts, for instance, until Jones asked him to do so last season.
“When I got here, they told me go back and catch punts,” Kamara said.
Kamara returned eight punts, including one for a touchdown.
As the season went on, Kamara’s role in the offense expanded. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord acknowledged using Kamara in different capacities.
“Alvin, just, he brings quickness, he brings speed; and obviously he can run the football, as we well know,” DeBord told the Knoxville News. “But he can also do things out in the slot, stuff like that. He brings a lot, and we have to use that.”
This season, the Vols are hoping for more, more touches, more touchdowns, more Brown-like moments.
Kamara is ready to accept the challenge.
“I always think I can do more,” he told The Tennessean. “I’m a perfectionist. There was a lot of stuff I did wrong that I’m looking to build on this year.”