By: Matthew Woods
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
Six: the end goal of every offensive drive, six may be the most important number in football. For older Tennessee Vol fans, the most legendary man associated with that number is not a player, but it is the great John Ward whose famous “Give Him Six” calls from decades ago can still send chills down your spine. For younger Vol fans, that number is starting to take on a new legacy that was created on the field, not from the announcer’s booth.
Today, if you asked any Tennessee fan under the age of 30 who his favorite Tennessee running back to watch was, you’d likely get the answer #6 Alvin Kamara. In just two seasons on Rocky Top (‘15-’16), Kamara became a Volunteer legend despite the fact that he was primarily
used as the backup running back. His legacy is not one that can be quantified with numbers thanks to his limited touches, but make no mistake about it, nobody who watched him will ever forget just how special Kamara was. When he touched the ball, he was a threat to get six every single time, and often he did. Undersized at 5’11”, Kamara used a rare combination of speed,
quickness, and strength to regularly break tackles with ease, electrifying Neyland Stadium time after time and leaving the Volunteer faithful wondering why he didn’t get more opportunities.
Seven years since Kamara took his talents to the NFL and became a bonafide superstar for the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee has another undersized, shifty “#6” in sophomore sensation Dylan Sampson, whose career is following a very similar path. Like Kamara, the 19 year old from Baton Rouge, Louisiana shows his superstar potential nearly every time he touches the ball. Sampson possesses a skill set that is very similar to Kamara’s. He’s fast, agile, and stronger than his 5’11” 190 pound frame would suggest. Most importantly, though, he never gives up on a play. Defenders can have him surrounded, and Sampson will often still find a way to go around or through them on his way to the end zone. Combine this skill-set with the same orange number six uniform that Kamara donned, and it’s almost like Deja vu to watch Sampson play.
A dive into the stats shows that when Sampson gets on the field his production keeps pace with Kamara’s. In Kamara’s Tennessee career, he touched the ball a total of 284 times (combined rushes and receptions). With those 284 touches, Kamara scored 23 touchdowns and averaged 7.0 yards per attempt. Thus far in Sampson’s career, he has touched the ball 124 times, scoring on 14 of those attempts while averaging 6.7 yards per touch. That means Sampson amazingly scores one touchdown every nine times he gets the ball on average, while
Kamara averaged one touchdown every 12 times he touched it. Some players have a nose for the endzone, and Dylan Sampson is one of them. Sampson is simply a difference maker, and I believe he is Tennessee’s X-factor.
Like Kamara, he is a rare type of player that can get something out of nothing, and he displayed that
ability down the stretch on Saturday night in Lexington to take over the game and save Tennessee’s season. For the second week in a row, Tennessee seemed to be falling apart in the second half. Injuries and fatigue were clearly taking their toll, and the Vols were losing the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. Clinging to a 26-24 lead with a little under 11 minutes to go, Tennessee was in danger of falling to 0-3 in rivalry games this season, and Josh Heupel’s third season on Rocky Top was on the brink of being a major disappointment. Enter: Dylan Sampson.
What Sampson did next was nothing short of carrying his team down the field. On the ensuing drive, Sampson racked up 52 combined yards, moved the chains three times including a clutch 17 yard catch on 3rd and long from the 29 yard line, and capped the drive off with a 12 yard touchdown run to put Tennessee up by two scores. After Kentucky kicked a field goal to pull within six, Sampson once again took over on the final drive of the game with 40 combined yards and two big first downs that helped Tennessee put the game away.
Sampson looked unstoppable in the fourth quarter. On multiple occasions, he broke away from defenders using moves that looked eerily similar to the ones we saw from Kamara all those years ago. He was essentially Tennessee’s entire offense down the stretch and made it
clear that he has the talent and mentality to take over a game. It appears that the only thing holding Sampson back is the same thing that held Kamara back; he doesn’t get to play enough.
For the majority of Kamara’s Tennessee career, he was the backup running back to Jalen Hurd, a decision by Butch Jones that looked utterly ridiculous once Kamara went to the NFL and immediately became one of its best offensive players. Currently, Sampson is
considered the third head of the “three headed monster” that is Tennessee’s running back room.
Ahead of him are Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small, two great, physical backs in their own right. It is undoubtedly a luxury to have three backs of such a great caliber, and Wright and Small have both helped Tennessee win some big games. However, there have been multiple occasions in the last two seasons when Sampson has been sitting on the sidelines for the majority, or
entirety, of some of Tennessee’s most important games. One such example was against the Florida Gators earlier this season. Sampson publicly expressed frustration on social media after he didn’t see the field once against Florida, a game in which Tennessee scored a shockingly low 16 points.
It’s not unreasonable to think that things could have been different if Sampson had been given an opportunity in Gainesville. Simply put, when Sampson gets touches, Tennessee wins.
When he doesn’t, things get much more difficult for the Vols. Since Sampson joined the team prior to last season, Tennessee has a 17-4 record. What do all four of those losses have in common, you ask? A few things come to mind (conference road game, untimely penalties, etc.),
but there’s something else to note regarding the box scores of those games. In each of those four losses, Dylan Sampson either didn’t play (Georgia and Florida) or barely touched the ball (South Carolina and Alabama).
The magic number fittingly appears to be six. Since the start of the 2022 season, there have been 10 games where Sampson was given the ball upwards of six times and 11 games; where he had six or fewer touches. The difference in Tennessee’s offensive production in these
two scenarios is incredible. In the 10 games where Sampson received 7+ touches, Tennessee averaged 49.7 points per game and had a perfect 10-0 record (5-0 in SEC games). In the 11 games where Sampson touched the ball six or fewer times, Tennessee averaged 32.3 points per game and had a 7-4 record (4-4 in SEC play).
Certainly, it’s not that simple as there are more factors at play than just Sampson’s touches, but that large of a discrepancy in terms of offensive production and win-loss record is too significant to ignore. Nearly every time Sampson gets an opportunity, he makes the most of it, and he helps the Vols to victory. I’m not even arguing that Sampson should be the starting running back for the Vols; Jaylen Wright has earned that spot and might be the most dependable all-around back on the team. However, to keep a talent such as Sampson’s on the sideline for an entire game is blasphemous.
Moving forward this season, I see no reason why Sampson should get any less than 10 touches a game. Tennessee is going to need his play making desperately against Mizzou and Georgia as one play very well could be the difference between winning and losing in each of
these games for the Vols. Odds are, Sampson will provide at least one of those game changing plays if you give him 10 touches, and if you give him more than that he might just carry you to victory as he did against Kentucky.
Ultimately, Dylan Sampson’s story at Tennessee is still largely unwritten. As of now, he seems poised to leave a legacy quite similar to the one that Alvin Kamara left: an incredible talent who could have done so much more if given the opportunity. As Tennessee fans, we have
already seen one “#6” wearing generational talent held back on the Volunteer sidelines, and that’s one too many. Here’s hoping we are not once again left wondering “What if?” when all is said and done.