published Friday, February 7th, 2014

Tennessee Vols 'really happy' with tailback signees

Beech's Jalen Hurd (18) runs against Columbia Central in the first half of the Division I Class 5A championship high school football game.
Beech's Jalen Hurd (18) runs against Columbia Central in the first half of the Division I Class 5A championship high school football game.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TAILBACK TRENDS

Even though Tennessee has had three 1,000-yard rushers in the last five seasons -- Montario Hardesty (2009), Tauren Poole (2010) and Rajion Neal (2013) -- Hardesty was the last Tennessee running back to earn All-SEC honors in 2009. Here's a look at the tailbacks the Vols have signed in the seven classes since Arian Foster also earned All-SEC honors in 2007, with their Rivals.com star ratings in parentheses.

• 2014: Jalen Hurd (5), Derrell Scott (4), Treyvon Paulk (3)

• 2013: Jabo Lee (3)

• 2012: Davante Bourque (4), Alden Hill (3), Quenshaun Watson (3)

• 2011: Marlin Lane (4), Tom Smith (3), Devrin Young (3)

• 2010: Rajion Neal (4)

• 2009: Bryce Brown (5), David Oku (4), Toney Williams (3)

• 2008: Tauren Poole (3)

  • photo
    University of Tennessee NCAA college football signees Jakob Johnson, of Jacksonville, Fla., left, Von Pearson, of Newport News, Va., and Jalen Hurd, of Hendersonville, Tenn., walk in Neyland Stadium after being introduced on Wednesday.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The last time Tennessee had a running back earn All-SEC honors was in 2009, when Montario Hardesty was named to the second team after the eventual second-round NFL draft pick of the Cleveland Browns ran for 1,345 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.

You have to go back to 2001, when Travis Stephens ran for a program-record 1,464 yards, to find the last time a Volunteers tailback was on the All-SEC first team.

In recent seasons, the Vols have lacked a true gamebreaker at the position, but Tennessee's coaches hope one of the three backs they signed in the 2014 class will break that drought.

Jalen Hurd, the five-star prospect from Hendersonville outside of Nashville, has been on campus for a month, and Derrell Scott and Treyvon Paulk signed with Tennessee on Wednesday.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian could barely hide how he felt about what he called an "outstanding" trio.

"One of our goals was to add depth, add competition, size and speed, and we were able to do that," he said Wednesday.

"Obviously Jalen Hurd comes in at 6-foot-3, 220-plus pounds, a big back who has the agility and skill of a smaller back. Treyvon Paulk at 5-foot-8, 198 pounds, may be a little bit on the shorter side, but he plays like a bigger back. He's strong, well-built, plays with leverage, can break tackles and, again, make you miss.

"Then Derrell Scott is a good complement to both those guys somewhere in between, that 180-pound running back [who's] very skilled. We're really happy with the depth and the skill that we've added at the running back position."

The Vols had needs across the board, and running back was no exception.

Rajion Neal finished his career by running for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior in 2013, and the seldom-used Tom Smith transferred to Tennessee State after the season.

Marlin Lane is the top returner at a thin position, but he's battled nagging minor injuries in each of his first three years and was suspended from the program for a chunk of last offseason. Alden Hill got just 10 carries as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and walk-on Justus Pickett, who sat out last year after transferring from Maryland, are Tennessee's other options.

"That was an area of need," head coach Butch Jones said. "This is a physical league, and you need to play a number of running backs. To be able to bring those three individuals to bring competition and depth amongst that group, that was obviously critical. That was the one area where we felt we really needed to improve."

Hurd, who ran for a Tennessee high school record 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2012, and Paulk committed to the Vols a day apart from each other last March, and both were set for big senior years when they suffered season-ending injuries.

In Beech High School's season opener -- a game against Station Camp and eventual Tennessee receiver early enrollee Josh Malone that was televised by ESPN on a Sunday afternoon -- Hurd ran for 177 yards and three touchdowns and racked up eight tackles and an interception on defense.

A few days later, he elected to have surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, the second procedure on the shoulder during his high school career.

As a junior, Paulk split time with Peyton Barber, who signed with Auburn last year, in the backfield for Alpharetta's Milton High School, a strong Atlanta-area program, and still racked up 1,200 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.

"Treyvon is a tough, hard-nosed kid," Vols running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "He is very football smart and he has the frame to be able to come into this league and have an instant impact on this offense."

Three games after he ran for 227 yards and three scores in Milton's opener, Paulk tore his ACL, and his season was done.

The injuries prompted Tennessee to look for a third tailback for this class, thus the Vols heavily pursued Scott.

"Both Jalen and Treyvon are right on schedule," Jones said. "They're doing a great job with their rehab. We fully anticipate Jalen, barring any setbacks, to probably be ready for spring football, and Treyvon is doing a great job with his rehabilitation as well."

As it did last year with receiver Marquez North, Tennessee snagged a highly rated player out of North Carolina the week before signing day with Scott, who piled up 6,145 rushing yards, 87 touchdown runs and three straight state titles during his career at Havelock High School.

"Derrell is a dynamic playmaker, a proven winner," Gillespie said. "He brings versatility to the backfield as far as catching the ball out of the backfield and making plays once he is in space."

Hurd may be the most important player in Tennessee's 2014 class given what he could do for the Vols' offense, but Bajakian insisted all three tailbacks need to be ready to contribute.

"We could say that we want [Hurd] to come in and play early," he said, "but the reality is we need all those guys to come in and play early.

"We're excited about their ability to do that."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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