Football is a physical game. However, that doesn’t mean practice has to be.
While that may sound counterintuitive, it is most certainly the case with Tennessee’s primary two tailbacks: juniors Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
“I talk to guys with the Seattle Seahawks,” Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie said on Thursday. “(Running back) Marshawn Lynch doesn’t need to get hit during practice. He’s going to be in car wrecks all Sunday, every Sunday, 16 Sundays out of the year. You have to be smart with those guys.”
Clearly, Hurd and Kamara have proven themselves as able to handle the physical nature of football. The two accounted for 440 touches last season. Hurd, in particular, played through several injuries. That dedication was on display when he continued playing despite a hamstring injury in the Outback Bowl.
“It allowed everyone to see just how tough he really is,” Gillespie said. “There have been times all season where he was banged up and had to play through something.”
So just how much contact is the right amount for two proven veterans? According to Gillespie, very little.
“I don’t think you have to worry about Jalen Hurd understanding how to take a hit,” he said. “You want to try to limit those as much as you can, especially in the spring.”
However, cutting back on contact could result in weaker ball security. Gillespie said the two tailbacks are constantly evaluated to make sure they’re protecting the ball.
That’s just one of the small details Tennessee’s coaches are working on. With Kamara, the Vols are trying to find more creative ways to get him the ball.
“How?” Gillespie said. “We can’t tell you that, but we talked about a lot of those things with him to feature his skill set.”
Those possibilities were discussed when Kamara was considering an early exit to the NFL. Clearly, Kamara got better as the season went on. However, that wasn’t an adjustment by the junior college transfer; it was an adjustment by Tennessee’s coaches as they better utilized the shifty tailback.
“Last year we were learning what he could do well and what he couldn’t do,” Gillespie said. “Late in the season, we started to use him a lot more. In the beginning of the season, we didn’t know how he would respond in pass-protection situations.
“We didn’t know how he would respond in short yardage situations … Now we understand what he can do and how much we can put on his plate.”
That’s exactly what Kamara wants to hear. Don’t dare call him a scatback.
“He doesn’t want to be labeled as just a third-down guy or just a speciality back,” Gillespie said of Kamara. “He’s almost 215 pounds. He’s a big guy. He understands that in order for him to be the type of back he wants to be, he has to be able to protect the quarterback. He’s done a really good job.”
Behind Hurd and Kamara is sophomore John Kelly. Mostly in mop-up duty last season, Kelly rushed for 178 yards on 40 carries. He has continually impressed Tennessee’s coaches this spring. Gillespie said recently that Kelly broke a long run and clocked the fastest time ever by a Vol while wearing a GPS. Gillespie said Kelly ran almost 22 miles per hour.
“That was something that kind of opened our eyes and opened his teammates’ eyes also,” Gillespie said. “He’s taken a lot of big strides. To us as an offense, John Kelly becoming a valuable back in this system and in the SEC is going to be huge for us as an offense.”
Like Kamara, Gillespie said Kelly can also be a receiving threat.
“His hands have been the thing that he’s showcased so far this spring,” Gillespie said. “He can catch the ball out of the backfield.”
Gillespie said he took every tailback before spring practice and asked them to name the five plays they’d most like to have back from last season. It was a reminder that no one is perfect, not even the best shooter in the NBA.
“Anybody who is good at what they do, they find little ways to get better. Steph Curry doesn’t look at the shots
he made,” Gillespie said referring to the Golden State Warriors’ all-star guard. “He goes back and looks at the shots he missed to see what he can do better.”
This season is set up to be led by Hurd and Kamara. And while that may mean less contact during spring practice, it certainly doesn’t mean less swagger.
“The way they go about their day-to-day is probably the biggest thing,” Gillespie said. “When those guys come to meetings, their demeanor when they walk around the building says they’re running backs at the University of Tennessee. That’s something that I talked to those guys about when we recruited them, and also when they got here, is when you’re a tailback at Tennessee, there has to be a sense of confidence when you walk around the building because of what we do as a group and what we do as an offense.
“You have to carry yourself differently.”