Tennessee Football: Why Jalen Hurd Will Save the Vols Ground Game

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2014

Beech's Jalen Hurd celebrates after defeating Columbia Central in their Division I Class 5A championship high school football game on Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Cookeville, Tenn. Hurd rushed for 394 yards and seven touchdowns as Beech High School won 56-35. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Jalen Hurd is the most celebrated commitment in Tennessee's vaunted recruiting class, and he will carry the football—along with the burden of massive expectations—extensively in 2014 and beyond.

As the Volunteers rebuild the program back to respectability, Hurd will be Butch Jones' centerpiece, becoming the first star back in Knoxville since Arian Foster.

The 4-star early enrollee from Beech High School in Hendersonville, Tenn. has everything you could hope for in a premiere running back. He's 6'3", 227 pounds and he obliterated state rushing records as a junior. He is a versatile athlete who has the power to blow through defenders and the speed to run away from them, and he had one of the most impressive offer sheets in the nation.

He's also the marquee member of a running backs class that analysts have praised. Ryan Bartow of 247Sports lauded UT's triumvirate of 4-star Hurd, 4-star Derrell Scott and 3-star Treyvon Paulk in an interview with GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required).

That's the strength of their class, and it's one of the best running back classes in the country. I don't know if it's the best, but it's at least close. I don't know if anybody's got a trio like that, when you put them all together. Paulk's one of the best in Georgia, and he gets downhill, and he's strong, strong. He might be the strongest of the three. And Hurd has got the size and the awesome film. I thought he was as good as anybody in Tennessee this year, and he's a guy that’s going to play right away and I think make a lot of Volunteer fans really happy. And Derrell Scott, imagine that. That's icing on the cake. He's the fastest of the three, and probably the most versatile. 

So they get just a little bit of everything with that stable, and that's going to be one of the strengths of their team in the years to come. 

The Vols are thrilled with all of their runners, but Hurd is a transcendent kind of player. Though his height isn't prototypical, he has the ability to make himself smaller in the hole and has that extra gear once he gets into the second level.

Some of the top schools recruiting him like Alabama wanted Hurd as an athlete rather than a running back, despite the fact that he shattered state rushing records as a junior with 3,357 rushing yards and 43 rushing touchdowns before injuring his shoulder in the first game of his senior season.

Others such as Ohio State and Florida wanted him exclusively as a running back, and there's no doubt that's where his Vols future lies.

He'll run the football and do it extremely well, changing the fate of a UT running game that has been stagnant for a decade. According to statistics on ESPN.com, the Vols haven't ranked higher than seventh in the SEC in rushing yards since they led the league in 2004.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

For a program that boasted such stars as Foster, Travis Henry, Jamal Lewis, Travis Stephens, Charlie Garner, James Stewart and Chuck Webb, that's an embarrassing stretch of futility.

While UT enjoyed a solid season running the ball in 2013 with 1,000-yard rusher Rajion Neal, the 188.3 yards per game ranked just 10th in the league.

The bad news for the Vols in '14 is they've got to replace the entire offensive line. But the good news is there will be more talent in Tennessee's backfield than there's been since Henry, Lewis and Stephens shared the load in the late 1990s.

Hurd heads the list. He has been cleared to participate in workouts after his fall shoulder surgery, and he is expected to be full-go by spring drills. When he gets to flash his entire skill set, it'll be impossible to keep his talent off the field.

247Sports analyst Kipp Adams rated Hurd the No. 2 early enrollee impact player in the nation. Given his combination of power and speed, he will have a much greater impact simply because he'll be able to do more things to help out a green and growing line than incumbent Marlin Lane.

Said Adams: 

If healthy, Hurd should be no worse than the No. 2 running back, and his size/speed combination, along with his penchant for big plays with the ball in his hands, should give Butch Jones and his staff a versatile playmaker on offense.

Jones mined gold in the suburbs of Nashville when he secured Hurd's pledge. He's the kind of player that UT hasn't been pulling in recruiting in a long time. 

While this recent period of lean years suffered by the Vols coincides with their inability to put a quality runner on the field, Hurd signifies a resounding end to that ineptitude. He's bound for big things in Knoxville, and with some help from an inexperienced offensive line, it'll start next year.

All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.