So far, it has been a banner offseason for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Despite a sub-.500 record and no bowl game, second-year head coach Butch Jones reeled in the nation's seventh-best recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com, and has sparked new life into Vol Nation—a fanbase that's been desperate for a winner since the start of the 2008 season.
One of the centerpieces of that recruiting class is 5-star running back Jalen Hurd.
The 6'3", 227-pounder from Hendersonville, Tenn. enrolled early and will compete this spring for a spot in the running back rotation, which will be without recently departed starter Rajion Neal. Hurd sat out his senior season at Beech High School with a shoulder injury but rushed for 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns as a junior in 2012.
"It's always great to coach a kid who understands the pride of the state that he's playing for," running backs coach Robert Gillespe said, according to UTSports.com, when he enrolled in January. "His unique blend of speed and power will give him a chance to help us at running back immediately."
So how will he fit into the Vols backfield?
|Tennessee 2013 RB Rushing Statistics|
|CFBStats.com / Highlighted players are currently on the roster|
He'll have a hard time unseating senior Marlin Lane right off the bat.
Getting into a college strength and conditioning program will undoubtedly help Hurd, but Lane's experience in the SEC is undeniable. He has rushed for more than 500 yards in each of the last two seasons and is familiar with Jones' offense and its blocking schemes—which is typically the last piece of the puzzle to come together for freshman running backs.
Barring injury, he'll likely be the starting running back when the Vols host Utah State in Week 1. The 5'11", 205-pounder has the size to be effective between the tackles and the wiggle to be dangerous in space.
But how long will he hold down that spot?
Hurd is too dangerous to keep off the field as a true freshman, and he'll undoubtedly see time against the Aggies in Week 1 and against Arkansas State in Week 2, especially if the Vols are able to jump out to big leads.
Those two will likely battle for the top spot on the depth chart all year, and even if Hurd doesn't completely overtake Lane by year's end, the true freshman is big enough to be a major weapon for Jones in short-yardage and goal-line situations. His size also likely means he can be used as a "closer" in the fourth quarter against worn-out defenses if the Vols have a lead.
That might mean an even more reduced role for bruiser Alden Hill, who looked like a rising star in last year's spring game, rushing for 101 yards on 18 carries, according to Evan Woodbery and Brendan F. Quinn of GoVolsXra.com. He didn't factor into Jones' plans much during the season, leaving that door wide open.
Competition breeds success, and Hurd will certainly up the level of competition on Rocky Top at running back—particularly with Lane. Don't be surprised to see Hurd emerge as the best back on Rocky Top by the time the leaves atop the Smoky Mountains begin changing.