Tennessee’s running back room was dealt an early blow to open camp, losing Len’Neth Whitehead to a season-ending injury. The situation changes the depth chart a bit with just one month left to sort everything out.
The good news here is that Tennessee is set to be anchored by veteran tailback Jabari Small. However, as we saw at a few points last season, injuries happen. It’s football after all — so where does that leave Tennessee when the inevitable occurs?
Jaylen Wright is the natural candidate to be the No. 2 back, coming off of a freshman season where he was thrown into the fire. He ended up with a lot on his plate after Tiyon Evans had his issues, and should be ready for another big role in 2022.
From there, Tennessee is going to have to get a couple of freshmen up to speed. Four-star Justin Williams-Thomas was able to go through spring practices, thankfully. Three-star speedster Dylan Sampson has arrived and will get a crash course over the next four weeks in fall camp.
“I think certainly with Len’Neth being out, the two young guys, (Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson) there’s a point of emphasis and there always is, that those guys have to grow, understand what we’re doing, be ready to compete at a really high level immediately,” Josh Heupel said on Sunday. “Justin has had a little bit more time on task, having been here mid-year. Dylan, really excited about what he’s done. He’s a mature young man that processes things really quickly, just having the opportunity to be out on the grass with him a little bit. Extremely explosive. So between those two guys, early in training camp, they’re going to have to grow really quickly to help us at that position.”
And then there’s this — veteran back Lyn-J Dixon has now entered the picture. The former Tennessee commit lands in Knoxville four years later, set to provide the Volunteers with some needed veteran depth in his final season playing college football.
Dixon put up decent numbers at Clemson, putting up back to back 500+ yard seasons as a freshman and a sophomore. He transferred to West Virginia in hopes of finding more playing time in his final year, but hit the portal once again in the spring. Following the Whitehead injury, Dixon finds a familiar and perfect late match with the Volunteers. Now it’s up to Dixon to get up to speed in Josh Heupel’s offense over the next few weeks.
Now with five scholarship backs, how does the depth chart shake out? Jabari Small will be up top, that much we know. However, now Jaylen Wright has some competition for that second spot, and freshman Williams-Thomas was impressive in his early work during the spring. Sampson pretty clearly has the most work to do, but his speed could offer him some sort of role as the season goes on.
Best guess for now?
1) Jabari Small
2a) Jaylen Wright
2b) Lyn-J Dixon
4) Justin Williams-Thomas
5) Dylan Sampson