Tennessee freshman running back Jalen Hurd has all the physical attributes—size, strength and speed—to be a dominant college football player right now.
But what is a realistic first-year expectation for the 6'3", 227-pound mid-term signee who has Volunteers fans everywhere dreaming of a dominant run game again?
That tricky answer depends on two major questions.
First, can Hurd stay healthy? And secondly, will all the nuances that are essential to becoming a complete running back be innate to the former high school star?
With Hurd getting to participate in spring drills and being given every opportunity to win the job, he should prove that he's UT's best backfield option. While anointing him an immediate 1,000-yard rusher is probably a stretch, he will have a strong season.
After suffering an injury during his senior season, Hurd will have to deal with naysayers. He'll have plenty of bulletin board material such as the news that trickled in on Monday from USC's War Room on national signing day.
The comments caused so much buzz in social media, it prompted an apology from the Trojans, as detailed by GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required). So Hurd definitely heard it, and it'll just drive him more in the weight room and on the practice field.
Despite some negative outliers, many analysts realize Hurd's talent is limitless. The Hendersonville, Tenn., product is the perfect weapon for UT coach Butch Jones' speed-based, no-huddle style.
In 2013, Jones kept trying to shove square-peg, slower players into the round hole of a fast attack, and it birthed an offensive clunker.
That will change with Hurd in the backfield.
He is the type of player who Jones can build his offense around, and he could get the ball in numerous ways—from direct handoffs, to sweeps, to even possibly lining up in a H-back role. Jones wants to get Hurd's elite speed in space, and the coaches will look for ways to do that.
Couple that speed with the fact that Hurd is a freak of nature physically, and anybody should understand the excitement rumbling like a rockslide down Rocky Top.
Perhaps that ideal fit for what Jones wants to do offensively is the reason why 247Sports' Kipp Adams named Hurd his No. 2 impact early enrollee (subscription required) behind Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor.
Most of the comparisons around the college football universe liken Hurd to Alabama's Derrick Henry. When Henry had his breakout game in a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, UT fans let their minds drift toward Hurd's potential.
Henry and Hurd share the same uncharacteristic build for a college runner (Henry is 6'3", 238 pounds), and there were the same questions surrounding the ability of both to play the position.
Both even suffered injuries before their first college games—Henry fractured his tibia in the spring, and Hurd had shoulder surgery that caused him to miss his senior year.
|Notable Recent Freshman SEC Runners|
|Alex Collins, Ark||190||1,026||5.4||4|
|Todd Gurley, UGA||222||1,385||6.2||17|
|TJ Yeldon, Bama||175||1,108||6.3||13|
|Keith Marshall, UGA||117||759||6.5||8|
|Jeremy Hill, LSU||142||755||5.3||12|
|Derrick Henry, Bama||36||382||10.6||4|
The comparisons between the two tall backs are evident, but Hurd will have a much greater impact at Tennessee in 2014 than Henry did during his first year as a member of the Crimson Tide.
Why? Simply because T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake aren't standing in Hurd's way.
Senior Marlin Lane will get his fair share of carries, and fellow freshman Derrell Scott could carve his niche as a third-down back. Devrin Young and Justis Pickett should have backfield offensive roles as well. But none of those guys are as talented as Yeldon and Drake.
While Hurd may be most compared to Henry, his stat line will look more like those of Georgia running back Keith Marshall or LSU's Jeremy Hill from their freshman seasons.
Splitting time with fellow first-year phenom Todd Gurley in 2012, Marshall finished with 759 rushing yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Hill posted similar numbers.
Gurley had 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns that same year, and Alabama's Yeldon also eclipsed 1,000 yards. But given that the Vols are breaking in an entirely new offensive line and haven't yet found a dependable quarterback, replicating those numbers would be difficult for Hurd.
Henry had just 382 rushing yards his first year in Tuscaloosa, according to ESPN.com, as he struggled to adapt to things such as learning an extensive playbook, pass-blocking and blitz pickups. All of those are "musts" for any SEC running back, and they simply can't be predicted until the players get on the field.
Still, Henry averaged more than 10 yards per carry.
Hurd must learn the same things, or he'll see his playing time trimmed. Regardless, Hurd is poised to play a key role in Tennessee's young and talented offense. If his shoulder and the rest of his body stay healthy, he will prove that his ranking is legit.
With Lane—a senior who has a ton of experience carrying the football in the SEC—returning, Jones won't completely hand over the reins of the offense to Hurd, and his stats will reflect that. But with Hurd's talent and speed, he will carve out a vital role in Tennessee's offense and lay the foundation for what will be an impressive career.
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