Better/Worse in 2017: Tennessee running game
RELATED: Better/worse: Vols’ passing game
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A key element of Butch Jones’ offense is the run game.
And a key element to that is production from the quarterback.
For the past two seasons, Jones had everything he needed with Joshua Dobbs at QB and Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and John Kelly in the backfield. They helped Tennessee run for 5,327 yards and 60 touchdowns.
All but Kelly are gone, but Team 121 has something previous teams lacked: talent and depth along the offensive line. This group is easily the best all-around unit Jones has had in his five-year tenure, and it had a good spring under new offensive line coach Walt Wells. The line is primed to provide running room for the new faces in the backfield.
Rushing yards per game (SEC rank): 203.17 (8)
Rushing TDs: 27 (T-5)
Yards/carry: (5.09, 7)
Kelly is the go-to guy. He began last season as the third-string back, but his status quickly changed as Hurd departed the program mid-season and Kamara dealt with an injury.
Even behind Hurd and Kamara, Kelly rushed for 630 yards and five touchdowns. Losing Kamara will not be as big of a concern as some might think, because Kelly had similar stats last season in nearly the same playing time.
Behind Kelly is sophomore Carlin Fils-aime, who played in seven games as a true freshman, rushing for 58 yards on 14 carries with two touchdowns. Sophomore Taeler Dowdy also returns and had meaningful reps this spring.
There’s not a lot of depth at running back.
Having only Kelly and Fils-Aime returning with game experience will be a concern if freshmen don’t step up immediately. Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman will enter fall camp as true freshmen who will be counted on. The good thing about the running backs coming in is that they all provide something different.
Nashville product Chandler stands at 5-foot-10, 187 pounds and produced 7,068 rushing yards and 107 touchdowns in high school. He has the ability to step in immediately and provide a presence similar to what Kamara brought to the table. He can hit the hole quickly and also can play a role in the passing game.
The 5-foot-11, 203-pound Coleman runs tough and can break tackles though he is not exceptionally fast.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Jordan from Bartow, Fla., produced 1,300 yards rushing in 2016. Jordan is a physical runner similar to Kelly.
One stat that must improve
The Vols faced third down and 4-6 yards to go 13 times in 2016.
On those attempts, Team 120 rushed for four first downs, had two runs for 10-plus yards and broke one run for 20-plus yards.
Team 121 should have a more clear identity in these situations early on while breaking in a new quarterback. Kelly can provide speed and a burst if defenses are in a zone coverage, and both quarterbacks (Quinten Dormady, Jarrett Guarantano) can provide timely running to pick up first downs.
Better or worse in 2017?
Much like the quarterback play for Team 121 entering the season, the running game is questionable too.
With the offensive line being talented and deep, the potential is there for the ground game to be improved. The line could allow for the passing and running attacks to feed off of each other for a balanced attack.
Kelly is talented and mature enough to handle the responsibilities that come with being the leader of the backfield, something that went missing last year when Hurd left. The key is if Kelly can stay healthy and the freshmen backs can provide instant help.
We’ll say slightly worse because of the loss of Dobbs and the resulting uncertainty at quarterback.