Alvin Kamara is using the word “maturity” quite a bit these days.
He’s describing the maturity required to allow a younger teammate to become his mentor. He’s describing the maturity that same teammate must possess not to see him as a threat.
If Tennessee is going to continue on its path back to prominence, the Volunteers are going to need Kamara, a new arrival, to be part of a dynamic duo of running backs — a staple of some of the best SEC teams in recent years.
Tennessee finished last season with half of that equation. Jalen Hurd was one of the Volunteers’ breakout stars during the program’s first winning season since 2009. A five-star recruit and one of the jewels of Butch Jones’ first full signing class in Knoxville, Hurd established himself as one of the best freshman backs in Tennessee history, rushing for nearly 900 yards. But fielding merely one standout running back is not a foundation for SEC championships, so Tennessee added another highly touted prospect in Kamara from junior college.
“I’m older, but he’s established here,” Kamara says. “I came with respect for him. That might be one of the hardest things for guys, putting that pride aside, that ego aside and learning from someone younger than you. I had to come in and be mature about it.”
While Kamara’s addition may be a key development in turning Tennessee into an SEC contender once again, the road to his awakening wasn’t short or direct. The top-100 national recruit from Norcross, Ga., started his college career at Alabama, left the Crimson Tide with more suspensions than carries and landed at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. He arrived at Alabama two years ago amid a talented running back class that included four recruits rated four-stars or better, Derrick Henry among them. And a year before Kamara’s class, Alabama had signed two other four- and five-star running backs, one of them being T.J. Yeldon.
There were only so many carries to go around, but Kamara made decisions easier for Alabama. He suffered a knee injury in the preseason, but he also was not on the sidelines for a 2013 game against LSU due to what Alabama deemed were “behavior reasons.” Alabama later suspended him from the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Kamara transferred to junior college weeks later.
Kamara’s absence from Division I football, and the SEC in particular, lasted only one year. Getting a second chance at running the ball in the SEC was reason for him to exhale.
“You know when something’s right and you’re stepping into a good situation, you’re like, ‘Ahh, OK,”’ Kamara says. “It was like relief.”
If all goes as planned, the relief in Knoxville will be twofold. Kamara steps onto a roster that’s thin at the position but with its leader firmly established.
Hurd rushed for 899 yards last season, the third-highest freshman total in Tennessee history after Jamal Lewis’ 1,364 yards in 1997 and James Stewart’s 908 yards in 1991.
Kamara, though, started spring as the only healthy scholarship tailback on the roster. Hurd participated in spring drills, but he was still recovering from a shoulder injury from the end of the season. Hurd has twice had shoulder surgery since his senior year of high school. And all too often, the Tennessee offense seemed to rest on those shoulders. Without Hurd running the ball effectively, Tennessee had few other places to turn in the running game.
The arrival of Kamara, in theory, should put another top running back on the field and limit some of the wear and tear on Hurd. Winning in the SEC in 2015 will likely require two or more tailbacks anyway.
Take Alabama and its pairings of Yeldon and Henry, or Eddie Lacy and Yeldon, or Trent Richardson and Lacy, for example. Georgia replaced one Heisman-contending running back (Todd Gurley) with another (Nick Chubb) last season. LSU seemingly has two or three NFL-caliber running backs at its disposal on an annual basis.
Tennessee’s issues have been numerous over recent years. The run game might not even be at the top of the Volunteers’ list of their most pressing priorities, but it will be a part of the solution in 2015.
What has been lacking at Tennessee hasn’t been individual running backs, necessarily; the problem has been running back depth. Tennessee hasn’t finished in the top half of the SEC in rushing since 2004 when Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston both topped 1,000 yards on the ground that season. Not coincidentally, Tennessee has played in the SEC Championship Game only once since then.
Tennessee also hasn’t had a first-team All-SEC running back since 2001 when Travis Stephens and Travis Henry earned those honors in back-to-back years. (Granted, Houston, Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty all were second-teamers at some point.)
Hurd would seem to be a logical candidate to end that drought, but even with Hurd enjoying a standout season in 2014, Tennessee ranked 13th in the SEC in rushing yards per game (146.4) and yards per carry (3.6).
His value, though, could not be overstated. Hurd had some of his best moments in Tennessee’s most important games. He rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown in a three-point loss at Georgia. He had 125 yards on 21 carries in the 45–42 upset of South Carolina. And he completed his season with a 122-yard, two-touchdown performance on 16 carries in the 45–28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The final game in that list of Hurd’s highlights might be the key. He had more than a month before the game to get healthy, and there was perhaps a little extra motivation. Bowl practice was also the first time Hurd met Kamara, who was committed to the Vols when he visited Tennessee’s practice in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I need guys to push me every day,” Hurd says. “The more competition we have, the better I’m going to get. When I see him break a long run, I want to break a long run.”
The two backs might be a clear No. 1 and No. 2. Or they might be better suited for particular situations. Or they could be interchangeable. None of that is quite clear yet.
“These guys will carve out who they are as football players on their own,” Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie says. “These guys will determine who they are as playmakers. They’ll determine the role they play in the offense.”
That said, the skill set of each of Tennessee’s top two running backs is easy to see. Hurd is 6'3" and 230 pounds and trying to get bigger before the season. Tennessee would love for Hurd to get to a sturdy 235 pounds.
“It’s hard for me to get fat,” Hurd says. “I was trying to eat everything I could, drink as many shakes as I could, get as many calories as I could.”
Kamara is 5'11" and 210 pounds and more likely to run to the outside. Hurd does some of his best work between the tackles.
“We’re two backs that are going to feed off each other,” Hurd says. “He’s more of a shifty back. That’s something he can push me on. I play a little bit bigger.”
The goal, though, is for both to be complete backs with the ability to excel in all situations.
With a year in the system compared to Kamara, Hurd is used to Tennessee’s up-tempo style, which is a stark contrast to what Kamara experienced at Alabama. Hurd knows the protections and blocking concepts, and he caught 35 passes last season, so he can play on third down.
By the time Tennessee opens against Bowling Green on Sept. 5 in Nashville, Hurd will try to do what he can to help Kamara get up to speed.
“Running the ball, that’s easy for Alvin,” Hurd says. “He’s a natural athlete. It’s just understanding the scheme of our offense, who to block, where to be, your alignments.”
This is a simple proposition for Hurd: If Kamara improves by fall, then Hurd probably does, too. And if Kamara and Hurd make up one of the best running back duos in the SEC, Tennessee’s rise will be that much quicker.
“(Hurd has) been able to see that some of the best running backs in the league are part of a tandem,” Gillespie says. “Alvin came on where he could see that, too, where everyone would be a bit better with competition.
“We have two guys that are going to be special.”