KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Butch Jones did what football coaches are supposed to do when one of their most visible players quits the program.
“We’re all moving forward, this football team is fine, this football program is fine, I love our fan base,” Jones said at the conclusion of his Monday press conference, shortly after disclosing that Jalen Hurd had indeed decided to leave the program..
“Everything is fine. We are going to be just fine.”
The Vols (5-3, 2-3) have had more than their fair share of attrition this season, with half the starting defense gone and musical chairs on the offensive line each week.
The truth is that it was a bigger loss for the team when defensive tackle Shy Tuttle suffered a season-ending knee injury at South Carolina on Saturday than when Hurd quit the team on Monday.
Those who have been paying close attention know the 2016 version of Hurd did not resemble the 2014 or 2015 editions that rushed for 899 and 1,288 yards, averaging 4.7 yards per carry each season.
Hurd leaves Tennessee averaging 3.7 yards per carry this season, a distant third behind sophomore John Kelly (6.3) and fellow junior Alvin Kamara (4.9).
Jones came out publicly in support of Hurd last week, calling him “one of the best backs in the country.”
Tennessee called Hurd’s number three straight times from the South Carolina 2-yard line, 1-yard line, and again 1-yard line so he could score in the 24-21 loss Saturday night.
But Hurd managed only 8 carries for 16 yards in the first half of the game against the Gamecocks, and sophomore John Kelly entered the action and had a 14-carry, 94-yard night.
A 6-foot-4, 240-pounder, Hurd was unable to get the necessary burst out of the shotgun sets primarily utilized in the Vols offense, especially with an injury-marred offensive line struggling to create daylight.
Hurd — no doubt better suited to line up deeper in the backfield in a Pistol Set or I-Formation — does have great pass protection and pass-catching skills.
But there were signs this season could be difficult from the onset.
Hurd wore a green no-contact jersey throughout fall drills — typically reserved for injured players coming off surgical procedures — after choosing to train in California away from the team part of the summer.
Jones declined to get into the particulars of why Hurd chose to leave the team now, when he was within striking distance of Tennessee’s all-time rushing mark with four soft opponents ahead on the schedule.
It’s possible and maybe even likely that Kelly was going to take the starting job, and that might have been too much of a blow to Hurd’s pride, or he may have been concerned it would damage his NFL stock.
There’s also a chance that Hurd has been nursing more injuries than anyone has been made aware of this season, and he realized he was never going to get up to speed playing intermittently.
The departure is not expected to affect team chemistry. Hurd appeared isolated from the team at times during games, and sources close to the program said the Beech (Hendersonville, Tenn.) High School product was indeed distracted by an impending NFL future.
It’s probably a better situation for both Tennessee and Hurd to part ways so Hurd can find a school with an offense that fits his talents better, or begin preparing in earnest for the NFL combine.
The Vols held a team meeting on Sunday night, and Jones said it was one of the healthiest things that could have happened.
“It was player-oriented, and our players left that meeting feeling very good,” Jones said. “Sometimes it may take a moment like that, an opportunity we let slip away Saturday night, to get everyone’s full attention and for individuals to speak up.
“But I think it’s more than just meeting. We have to get back to playing our style of play. We lost our way. We lost our edge. … “
It’s a perfect time for Tennessee to be hosting FCS school Tennessee Tech for a homecoming game.
The Vols can get healthy literally and figuratively at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Tennessee finishes the regular season at home against Kentucky on Nov. 12 and Missouri on Nov. 19, then at Vanderbilt on Nov. 26.
“I told our football team, and I’ll be flat-out frank, the next four weeks will define us,” said Jones, who’s one win away from making Tennessee bowl eligible for a third-straight season, something that hasn’t happened for the Vols since 2002-2004.
“Everybody wants to push the panic button, there is no panic button, that’s football and we live in a week-to-week season, he said. “We can’t lose our season and leave our season in Columbia, South Carolina. There’s a lot of football left to be played.”
Jalen Hurd by the numbers
All-time rushing list, yardage
1. Travis Henry (1997-2000), 3,078 yards
2. Arian Foster (2005-2008), 2,964
3. James Stewart (1991-1994), 2,890
4. Johnnie Jones (1981-1984), 2,852
5. Jamal Lewis (1997-1999), 2,677
6. Jalen Hurd (2014-2016), 2,638
7. Cedric Houston (2001-2004), 2,634
• Hurd holds UT record for most rushing yards by a sophomore, 1,288 in 2015.
All-time carries list
1. Arian Foster (2005-2008), 650
2. Jalen Hurd (2014-2016), 597
3. Montario Hardesty (2005-2009), 560
4. Travis Henry (1997-2000), 556
5. Jay Graham (1993-1996), 540
6. James Stewart (1991-1994), 531
7. Curt Watson (1969-1971), 529
100-yard rushing games, career
1. Travis Henry (1997-2000), 15
2. Jay Graham (1993-1996), 14
T-3. Jamal Lewis (1997-1999), 13
T-3. Johnnie Jones (1981-1984), 13
5. Jalen Hurd (2014-2017), 11
T-6. Cedric Houston (2001-2004), 10
T-6. Charlie Garner (1992-1993), 10
T-6. James Stewart (1991-1994), 10
T-6. Reggie Cobb (1987-1989), 10
Jalen Hurd rushing this season
vs. Appalachian State: 28 carries, 110 yards, 1 TD
vs. Virginia Tech: 22 carries, 99 yards
vs. Ohio: 15 carries, 61 yards, 1 TD
vs. Florida: 26 carries, 95 yards
at Georgia: 10 carries, 42 yards
at Texas A&M: Injured, did not play/travel
vs. Alabama: 13 carries, 28 yards
at South Carolina: 8 carries, 16 yards, 1 TD