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Vols' Hurd evokes memories of Titans great

August 17th, 2014 10:55 pm by The Tennesseean

Vols' Hurd evokes memories of Titans great

Considering his hometown, his stature and his position of choice, the player Jalen Hurd most relates to is no surprise.

“There’s not really anybody I compare myself to because I like to think I’m my own person and they’re their own person, but somebody that I really idolized was Eddie George,” he said.

“To be a guy with that build and to play that long, he took a lot of impact on the field and pushed through it and stayed healthy and just kept running and getting yards. That’s amazing.”

Indeed, the former Tennessee Titans star played nine NFL season (the first eight with the Oilers/Titans organization) and piled up 10,441 rushing yards. Despite averaging 342 carries per season in his first eight years, George never missed a start due to injury.

“He was a very strong runner and he had breakout speed,” Hurd said. “He was a big target, but he played in the league all those years.”

The description hangs out there: a big target. George was. And Hurd is.

At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, George did not fit the template for a running back, first at Ohio State, then in the NFL. Hurd can relate. He enters his freshman season at Tennessee listed at 6-3 and 221 pounds.

When the Vols lined up in position groups for a photo shoot at UT’s media day last week, Hurd looked out of place with the running backs. With his physique, he looks more like a tight end or a linebacker.

He’s grown accustomed to the inevitable questions.

“I’ve always been a tall running back,” he said.

He’s playing a different game now, however. As a phenom at Beech High in Hendersonville, Hurd simply overwhelmed opponents with his combination of power and speed. He’s making the leap to the SEC, which is known for its search-and-destroy defensive talent.

Consider: Of the top 10 career rushing leaders at Tennessee, none was listed taller than 6-foot-1 when he left the program. Vols all-time leading rusher Travis Henry was a compact 5-9 and 223 pounds.

The three best running backs I ever saw at Tennessee were Chuck Webb, Charlie Garner and Jamal Lewis. Webb checked in at 5-9 and 201 pounds. Garner was 5-10, 190. Lewis was 6-1, 220.

“I know some parts of my body are going to take more contact so I’m always trying to get my legs and my upper body stronger,” he said.

Beyond that, though, he runs with a natural style. He’s played the position since he was 10 years old. As a junior at Beech in 2012, he set a state record with 3,357 rushing yards and also ran for 43 touchdowns. He’s accustomed to fitting into the category of Tall Running Back.

“Between my eighth and nine grade year, I hit a little growth spurt,” he said. “That’s when I gained most of my height. I had to get used to it a little bit.

“You evolve as a running back. You have to focus on getting low. The coaches stress it all the time. As you cut, you squeeze the ball and protect it.”

UT once churned out dominant tailbacks with regularity, but that has not been the case over the last several years. It is one of many reasons for the program’s fall from grace. Hurd hopes to change all that. He knows the expectations are great.

“I know what people are expecting. I want to give that to them,” he said.

Robert Gillespie has his own expectations. As UT’s running backs coach, Gillespie believes players should sweat the small stuff. Hurd is no different.

“Nobody cares if you hit a hole that’s blocked perfectly or if you catch a swing pass. We can put anybody in to do that,” he said. “It’s all about what you do when you don’t have the ball in your hands. There might be 60 offensive plays in a game and you carry the ball 20. What are you doing on the other 40 plays?”

Gillespie keeps score. When one of his running backs properly handles a key detail, the player gets a “furious point” in his book.

Why furious?

“Offense is fast and furious,” Gillespie said.

Hurd is a good pupil. Vols coach Butch Jones calls him “very grounded” and “very humble.”

“He’s the same player every day,” Jones said.

Gillespie sees someone who expects much of himself even though he will play his freshman season as an 18 year old.

“He’s a focused kid,” Gillespie said. “He’s not a guy that feels like he has to fit in the crowd. He’s not a follower. He has a different bounce to him, which is good. I think anybody that wants to be great isn’t afraid to be different.”

Although senior Marlin Lane is the presumptive starter at running back in the opening game, Hurd will get plenty of carries. In time, he could become the Vols’ go-to running back this season. There is precedent. Four true freshmen have led UT in rushing as true freshmen — LaMarcus Coker (2006), Arian Foster (2005), Jamal Lewis (1997) and James Stewart (1991).

It’s a tall order. But Jalen Hurd is a tall running back.

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