KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The unexpected departure of running back Jalen Hurd hasn’t hindered Tennessee’s rushing attack.
In its first two games since Hurd left the team, Tennessee (7-3, 3-3 SEC) has averaged 276.5 yards rushing per game and 8.4 yards per carry. Tennessee’s robust rushing attack has compensated for the defense’s recent inability to stop the run heading into Saturday’s game with Missouri (3-7, 1-5).
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and John Kelly each rushed for over 90 yards last week in a 49-36 victory over Kentucky.
“Me and Alvin just open up so much for the offense,” Kelly said after the Kentucky game. “There is so much that we have to offer for our offense so we are just taking advantage of the opportunities, and we keep the defense on their heels every time we are out there.”
They’ve shown that Tennessee’s backfield still has plenty of firepower even without Hurd.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones announced two days after a stunning 24-21 loss at South Carolina that Hurd intended to transfer . Hurd had rushed for a team-high 451 yards at the time of his exit after gaining 899 yards in 2014 and 1,288 yards in 2015. Hurd was just 440 yards shy of the Tennessee career rushing record owned by Travis Henry.
Hurd’s departure expanded Kelly’s role in the offense, and the sophomore from Detroit has made the most of the opportunity. Kelly has rushed for at least 94 yards in each of Tennessee’s last three games and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry this season.
“He runs with passion, and he wants to score every time he touches the ball,” Kamara said.
Kamara returned to action last week after missing two games with a knee injury, and Tennessee responded by rushing for 376 yards and averaging over 9 yards per carry against Kentucky. That 376-yard output was Tennessee’s highest single-game rushing total since a 399-yard performance against Bowling Green in its 2015 season opener.
The Vols were just six yards away from having three 100-yard rushers in a single game for the first time since 1991. Dobbs rushed for 147 yards, Kamara gained 128 yards and Kelly had 94 yards.
“I’ve always had great belief in all of our backs, Alvin and John and even if we have to go beyond that,” offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “We feel good with our backs and feel we have really good running backs. They’ve all got something different, which is good. They all run hard, too. The other thing I like is they’re hitting the holes really quick now.”
Tennessee has needed to run this ball this well because its defense has been unable to stop the run.
In its last four games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, Tennessee has given up 340.8 yards rushing per game and 6.7 yards per carry. Kentucky rushed for 443 yards against Tennessee, which was just three yards shy of the Wildcats’ single-game school record and represented the third-highest total ever allowed by the Vols.
Tennessee’s front seven on defense has been hurt by season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin as well as the dismissal of tackle Danny O’Brien. Defensive end Corey Vereen noted the Vols also have missed plenty of tackles the last few games.
“We’ve just got to all do our jobs and not try to do too much,” defensive back Malik Foreman said. “The coaches have got a good scheme laid out for us. I feel if we just all do our jobs and stay within the defense, we’ll be fine.”