How important is figuring out the #2 RB?

A few months ago we looked at pass distribution under Josh Heupel at UT and UCF. The big takeaway there: in spite of playing at a faster pace, the wide receiver rotation under Heupel tends to be tighter. Last season Velus Jones and Cedric Tillman had 51.9% of Tennessee’s receptions, the highest total for a UT duo in the post-Fulmer era. Numbers were similar at Central Florida.

So I kind of expected something like this for running backs as well. Tennessee had its first scrimmage yesterday, and with Len’Neth Whitehead out for the year and Lyn-J Dixon on the roster, there’s renewed interest in who will back up Jabari Small.

But once you start digging into the numbers, it’s easy to see there’s much less of a “backup” situation in Heupel’s offense.

Total Percentage of RB Carries at Tennessee (Heupel, Pruitt, Butch)

2021Jabari Small37.74%
2020Eric Gray54.90%
2019Ty Chandler38.46%
2018Tim Jordan37.61%
2017John Kelly61.76%
2016Jalen Hurd35.36%
2015Jalen Hurd62.39%
2014Jalen Hurd56.89%
2013Rajion Neal58.11%

In the last nine seasons, the lead back at UT got 55+% of the total RB carries five times. Jalen Hurd was on his way to making it six before he left the team in 2016. And Jim Chaney had a history of involving multiple guys, but leaned heavily on Eric Gray in his final season at UT.

Jabari Small was dinged up a couple times last year, and could’ve seen his numbers climb higher. He didn’t play against Tennessee Tech, then left the Missouri game after just three carries and missed South Carolina the next week. Perhaps closer to full strength, he had a season high 26 carries against Purdue.

There’s no shortage of excitement about Jabari Small in 2022 coming out of scrimmage one:

So there’s reason to believe Small could just take off with this thing and, when combined with Hendon Hooker and Tennessee’s passing game, the UT offense is in sensational hands. But when you look at Heupel’s history, those hands have always included at least one other running back getting significantly involved, and often more than one:

(if the chart looks weird, turn your phone sideways)

Total Percentage of RB Carries under Josh Heupel, 2018-21

YearTeamRB CarriesRBCarriesPct.
2021Tennessee371Jabari Small14037.74%
Jaylen Wright8522.91%
Tiyon Evans8121.83%
2020UCF365Greg McCrae14940.82%
Otis Anderson12534.25%
B. Thompson7320.00%
2019UCF418Otis Anderson11327.03%
Greg McCrae9823.44%
B. Thompson8720.81%
Adrian Killins8720.81%
2018UCF431Adrian Killins14734.11%
Greg McCrae13330.86%
Taj McGowan7116.47%

Under Jeremy Pruitt and Butch Jones, the number one back got 55+% of the RB carries more often than not. Under Josh Heupel, the number one back got 40+% of the carries just once.

Maybe some of this is more carries for backups in blowouts. But even in Jabari Small’s season-high 26 carries against Purdue, Jaylen Wright still got 17 carries. The only time the Vols really rode one guy: Jabari Small had 21 carries against Ole Miss, with both Tiyon Evans and Jaylen Wright out. Marcus Pierce got two carries in the fourth quarter.

In this offense, you want your top guy to be great. But you’re still going to need at least your number two, and historically, for much more than we’re used to seeing from the number two at UT. Alvin Kamara had 29.86% of the RB carries in 2016. I don’t think the Vols have an Alvin Kamara as their backup this year. But whoever it is, history says he’s going to get a higher percentage of carries.

And we may not have a 2019 UCF scenario, where the top guy is really four guys. But again, even if Small is both great and healthy, Tennessee is going to need quality touches from its number two. History says the #2 RB matters way more than the #4 WR in this offense.

So…who’s it gonna be?

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Keepontruckin
Keepontruckin
1 month ago

Logical to think Wright would be RB2. He has added some weight and is one of the fastest guys on the team. Will be interesting to see how many carry’s Dixon will get.