Running Back Breakdown: Making the Past the Present
The Vols are banking on Jeremy Pruitt to be able to change the results on the field for the football program this season. To become more competitive, Pruitt has been changing the way the Vols practice, the culture around and within the program, and even the uniforms, making some changes to have Tennessee in more traditional uniforms. That said, arguably the biggest changes that Pruitt and his staff are making at Tennessee are to the schemes that the Vols will be operating out of come September. Defensively, the Vols will be moving to at least a hybrid 3-4 defense, while the offense appears primed to move to a pro style attack with an emphasis on a power running game. That emphasis on the running game will be a key for the Vols this season, as success from the running backs will likely translate to wins of the field for Tennessee. Fortunately for these Vols, the running back room at Tennessee appears to be up to the task of setting the tone for the team.
Football is the ultimate team game, a fact that makes the strategy and depth of the sport so intriguing. A great player without support from the other units around him will struggle, however, in the ultimate team game, teams still need stars. They need excellent players capable of rising to the challenge to define the identity of a team. Players that can become where a team hangs their hat, someone that the coaches and players trust to make the big plays when they absolutely must make them. For the 2019 Tennessee Volunteers, the most likely player to step into that role is Ty Chandler.
Chandler was a prized commit for the Vols from the 2017 recruiting class when they landed him out of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy. Chandler is a bit light for what the new Tennessee staff wants out of their running backs, but make no mistake, Ty Chandler had offers from programs across the country because he is capable of playing every down in any style of offense. Chandler was underutilized during his true freshman season in Knoxville, as Butch Jones and his staff seemed to prefer running John Kelly into the ground rather than rolling Chandler in regularly or putting the pair of talented backs on the field together. Despite his limited use, Chandler still showed flashes during his freshman campaign, one of the most electrifying was running the opening kickoff of the Indiana State game back for a touchdown. Though he wasn’t on the field enough, when the previous coaching staff did get Chandler on the field, they used him in a multitude of ways, from running back, to kick and punt returner, to splitting him out to the slot as a receiver. The versatility Chandler showed demonstrated why he has the potential to be the tone setter for the 2019 Vols, and no game demonstrates it more than the Kentucky game.
A John Kelly suspension for marijuana possession opened the door for Chandler to see the field as a feature back for the first time last season in Lexington. Chandler made the most of his opportunity and put on a show, flashing all the parts of his game that made him such a highly sought-after recruit. While not as large as and ideal Pruitt-system back, Chandler runs bigger than his size. Against the Wildcats, he regularly broke through tackles and delivered some crushing hits himself as a ball carrier. Chandler does not shy away from contact, and consistently delivers a blow to the defenders trying to tackle him. He runs angry, with bad intentions, a physicality that will endear him to Pruitt and Tyson Helton, especially when you add in Chandler’s greatest strength, the thing that differentiates him from ever other back in the running back group: His speed. Chandler set the Tennessee State Record in the 100 meters as a senior in high school, and that speed translates to the football field. Chandler is a threat to turn a six-yard carry into a sixty-yard touchdown every time he touches the ball. Add into the equation that Chandler is also an outstanding receiver, and you begin to see the kind of weapon he can be for Helton and the Vols. If Tennessee has success on offense this season, expect number three to be the player the offense is built around. While Chandler can do it all as a back, Tennessee having the ability to compliment him and effectively use change of pace backs to spell him and on the field with him to add an additional threat will be key to real success for the Vols.
The Vols have two options for trying to compliment Chandler, and the first is another member of the 2017 recruiting class. Tim Jordan arrived at Tennessee as a three-star back that was distinguished from the other Tennessee ball carriers by his larger size. Now, Jordan’s bigger frame has made him an asset to Pruitt in the system he wants to run. Jordan saw very limited opportunities in 2017, but he made an impressive showing during the 2018 Orange and White Game. Pairing with Chandler as a one-two punch for the first-string offense, Jordan not only showed good power on multiple run, particularly inside the ten yard line, he also demonstrated smooth, fluid footwork running behind a lead blocker. Jordan showed good acceleration and made smooth cuts allowing holes to open for him, making a compelling case to be a larger part of the 2018 offense.
Another option for the Vols to pair with Chandler comes in the form of graduate transfer running back Madre London from Michigan State. At six foot one, two hundred thirteen pounds, London possesses the size that Pruitt and Helton covet. London is a well-rounded back that had his best season with the Spartans as a freshman. Injuries and the emergence of other backs saw London’s touches dip in East Lansing, but when he got carries he made an impact. The Vols are hoping that a change of scenery will spark London to reach the potential he showed while in the Big Ten. London looks to figure prominently in the equation for the Volunteers offense, a sturdy, one cut back that is capable of bouncing off defenders and rolling on, he looks to be an ideal pairing with Chandler. With what was shown in the Orange and White Game, expect the Vols to be willing to use different backs down near the goal line, a role that a strong back like London could excel in.
Beyond these three backs, the Vols running back group gets a little murky for several reasons. Carlin Fils-Aime showed promise at running back when given touches but spent spring camp and was listed at Media Days as a defensive back. Fils-Aime was a highly rated back when he arrived at Tennessee, and he showed flashes as a ball carrier and receiver out of the backfield. Perhaps his future is at defensive back, but it would be hard to imagine him staying on defense were injuries to become an issue for the Vols. Trey Coleman is a bit of an unknown at this point. Skilled, but he has a body type that doesn’t seem to fit what Pruitt and Helton want from the running back position. He appears to have the talent to contribute, but whether he gets that opportunity or not, or perhaps is maybe asked to redshirt, remains to be seen. Princeton Fant is listed as a running back for the moment, although he has been listed at tight end and wide receiver as well. The staff seems to like Fant, but he is very raw, without a true home right now. Fant is best looked at as a developmental player for the time being.
The remaining player in the running back group for the Vols, and one with a clearer picture, is incoming freshman Jeremy Banks. Banks and his high school teammate Jerome Carvin committed to Tennessee together as they came out of Cordova High School in Memphis. Banks was rated as a three star by some recruiting services and a four star by others, but regardless of his ratings, he produced on the field week in and week out Cordova. At six foot one, two hundred eleven pounds as an incoming freshman, he has the size and style as a ball carrier that Pruitt wants for his type of back at Tennessee. Banks is a balanced, complete back. He runs with power, shows good cuts, is solid is pass protection, is a solid receiver, and has enough speed to break away. The question for Banks is what role will he fill in 2018? He could do as much as being the primary pairing with Chandler to potentially being redshirted. A strong fall camp is going to be particularly important for Banks.
Tennessee is working to become the team that Jeremy Pruitt wants, and that certainly appears to be a team that can control the tempo of the game with multiple big backs that can pound an opposing defense into submission. There is talent in this Tennessee running back room for first year running back coach Chris Weinke. Behind a re-tooled offensive line, these backs may be the group that sees their success most directly correlate to the success of the team as a whole. A stable of hard running backs that set the offensive tone is a tradition for the Vols, particularly in their most successful seasons. It is going to be interesting to see Jeremy Pruitt get back to that, and see how this group performs, maybe even shines, this fall.