KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Former Tennessee tailback Jalen Hurd told coaches before the season he wanted to run more plays out of the I-Formation, and the coaches were good with that.
Hurd’s departure from the team following the 24-21 loss at South Carolina left many in shock, his coaches and teammates included.
But going back to Hurd’s preseason press conference in August, and an interview with offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, the fact the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder wanted to run out a certain set didn’t raise red flags.
“I think the easiest thing for me in Year Two compared to Year One is knowing everybody and knowing our guys, and our guys know me,” DeBord said during fall camp. “If Jalen Hurd wants to do something he’s going to come in my office and ask, same thing with Alvin (Kamara) or Josh Dobbs, or anybody. They can walk in my office and feel like they can talk to me.”
Hurd was asked specifically about running out of the I-Formation, a set that enabled him to line up deeper in the backfield and gain more field vision and get more momentum before encountering potential tacklers.
“Have you ever lobbied for a Deep I-Formation? Have you ever wanted to run out of that (formation) here?” Hurd was asked in August.
“Yeah,” Hurd said, “I mentioned that to them, and we ran some in the bowl game, so we’ll see if we see some more of that.”
“Do you think you’re maybe better fit for that ultimately, obviously you’ve been effective out of spread, but is there something about a Deep I that every tailback likes?” was the follow-up question.
“It’s good, you definitely have better vision of the field in some cases,” Hurd said. “But I can run out of anything. I feel like I can run out of any offense that they put me in or want to do.”
But Tennessee did not give Hurd many carries out of the I-Formation this season. A “Pistol” formation — the tailback lined up behind a quarterback in shot gun set — was used sparingly.
Hurd’s rushing numbers, meanwhile, plummeted.
After rushing for 1,288 yards last season — the most by any Vols sophomore — Hurd struggled to gain 451 yards on 122 carries (3.7 yards per attempt) through the seven games he played.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones defended Hurd, specifically, in a press conference leading up to last week’s game at South Carolina.
“I’m not concerned with statistics or yards per carry,” Jones said. “Jalen Hurd is a great player and one of the best backs in the country, and we’re going to get him the football.”
Jones insisted that the Vols have run more formations with Hurd deeper in the backfield.
“We’ve done a lot more pistol than we have in the past, and that puts him in the home position at 7 yards (deep in the backfield), so that’s standard football and you can’t go any deeper than that,” Jones said. “So he’ll maintain that, (and) we’ve done some more under center things than we’ve done in the past, and obviously the traditional shotgun run game stuff as well.
“We anticipate him having good games moving forward. There isn’t anyone in our program that takes more pride in his performance than Jalen Hurd. He dissects every single run, what could he do better, he works very hard.”
But against the Gamecocks, a defense that entered last Saturday night’s game ranked 103rd in the nation in run defense, Hurd managed just 16 yards on eight carries.
It took Hurd three carries to score from the South Carolina 2-yard line in the first quarter — all carries out of the shot gun formation.
DeBord indicated last week that Hurd’s statistical drop had more to do with Tennessee’s inability to wear down opponents this season.
“The wear and tear effect on a defense through the course of a game, we’re getting it, but we’re not getting it like we did last year because we’re not running the ball as much,” said DeBord, who last season orchestrated UT’s most efficient run game since 1989.
“I don’t think it’s anything with (Hurd); I think it’s been more of our approach of mixing in our throw game stuff and not running as much, and then Alvin has done some things for us.”
Hurd’s stepfather has said since the player’s departure that Tennessee did not make good on preseason plans.
“He’s frustrated and feels like that he didn’t get the looks he was supposed to get,” Arthur Smotherman told The Read Optional in an exclusive interview.
“He felt like the offense was not built for him.”
Smotherman said Hurd considered transferring last season, and that the coaches told his stepson he would get more carries out of the I-Formation where he could better showcase his talents.
“They never promised us that they were going to change their system,” Smotherman said. “They just said they were going to do some things for Jalen to help him showcase who he is. And I believe Jalen considered the I-formation one of those things and it never happened.
“The reason I believe they even took the I-formation to the (Outback) bowl game, which they never did at all last year because Jalen was preaching to them that ‘I need you to show me why (I should) stay.’ They put the I-formation in giving him the glimpse of what he felt this season would be like. I think the whole year he’s ran two plays from it and I don’t even think they handed him the ball. They just passed out of it.”
Circumstance may have had something to do with the Vols not playing more snaps in the more run-oriented I-Formation.
Tennessee has trailed by double digits in six of eight games this season and been forced to rely on quarterback Josh Dobbs scrambling and passing out of multi-receiver sets to rally.
The Vols’ offensive issues, combined with his personal struggles, might have proven too much for the 20-year-old Hurd to take.
Before the season, he had made it clear that his sights were set very high.
“My exceptions are higher than anyone can put on me,” Hurd said in August. “I want to be the best at everything I do.”
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