It’s hard to fathom, but rising junior Jalen Hurd easily could become Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher this season. Yes, easily.
The Hendersonville, Tenn., native has rushed for 2,187 yards in two seasons at Tennessee. That puts him just 891 yards behind the Vols’ all-time leading rusher, Travis Henry, who had 3,078 rushing yards from 1997-2000. Maybe most weren’t aware just how close Hurd is to passing Tennessee’s all-time greats, but he is and he’s not backing away from it.
“Absolutely,” Hurd said when asked if he thought about setting the all-time record. “I’ve definitely thought about that. That would be amazing. That’s definitely something that is a goal and I definitely want to do.”
Those are pretty strong words from a player who always has been team-oriented. Hurd said he didn’t come to Tennessee to set that lofty mark, but after two seasons of being the go-to guy, he’s ready to assume the mantle.
“Now that it’s reachable,” Hurd said, “I definitely want to do that.”
As long as he stays healthy, the record shouldn’t be that difficult to achieve. Hurd rushed for 899 yards as a freshman in 2014 and 1,288 as a sophomore last year. The record would practically be a foregone conclusion if Hurd was set on playing out his eligibility at Tennessee. However, an early departure to the NFL seems likely after this season.
Hurd certainly could make it easier on himself if he stretched some runs instead of repeatedly battering defenses as he’s done so far in his career. Of Tennessee’s top 12 offensive plays last season, Hurd was only responsible for one, a 48-yard run against Vanderbilt. That’s why Hurd is focused on making defenders miss once he breaks through the line of scrimmage.
“Really just working on my second-level cuts,” Hurd said, when asked what he had focused on this spring, “working on my burst, top-end speed and just sideline trying to stay in bounds.”
With a veteran offensive line, Hurd should have plenty of chances to make linebackers and defensive backs miss. If he does, those decent runs can turn into fantastic runs.
“Linebacker in the hole, you need shake him up and make him miss,” Hurd said. “That’s just a mark of a great running back, just one-on-one matchup, you win those.”
It’s not all power and it’s not all deft moves. Much like a baseball pitcher, making defenders miss is about knowing how to set them up.
“You might lower your shoulder one time and then make them miss another time,” Hurd said. “You just keep the guy on their heels and make sure they never know what’s coming.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Hurd has taken it on himself to be more elusive after watching some runs — and what they could have been — from last season.
“There were some times he felt personally he left some yards out there,” Jones said. “Everything is creating space and the ability to make somebody miss in space, but also finishing the runs. Jalen has a unique skillset. Jalen is a big back, but I always say he plays with the elusiveness of somebody not his stature. He’s a rarity when it comes to the skillset he has.”
Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs has had a bird’s-eye view of Hurd during the rare times he’s participated in spring. Even while coaches are determined to keep Hurd healthy, Dobbs has seen enough to notice Hurd’s improvement once he breaks through the line of scrimmage.
“I’ve seen his footwork improve,” Dobbs said. “He’s trying not to get tripped up by that one tackler. … He’s getting better at it. It’s going to be exciting to see him make more guys miss and have more explosive runs.”
And maybe make a run at the record books.