March 27, 2014

Seen and Hurd: Vol RB dazzling early

Plenty of times, Robert Gillespie doesn't even make an announcement.

Instead, Tennessee's running backs coach waits to see which of his players responds. Here's a hint: more times than not, it's the five-star running back who's barely been on the Vols' Rocky Top campus three months.

So when Butch Jones barked through the microphone for "sudden change" during a recent Tennessee spring football practice, Gillespie had an inkling Hurd would summon the energy to get the rep.

"The biggest thing is this, he runs in there. He runs into the game. I don't have to look around to see who's going in or to look and see if Marlin's there. He runs in with the first group. And I do that on purpose, to see who's going to run in. And that's what he does," Gillespie explained. "We had another period the other day where they had to run gassers for making mistakes, and Coach Jones sudden-changed it and made it fourth-and-1 again. He's dead tired, and he doesn't hesitate. He runs in the game.

"So those are the little things that I don't say anything to him about, but as his position coach I see. He's not afraid. He's not afraid to jump in and fail. That's what great competitors do. Michael Jordan, LeBron James. They're not afraid to take that last shot. They may miss, but they're not afraid to go in there and play. And that's what he's showing now. He's a young kid, but he's not afraid to go in there and make a mistake."

A powerful 6-foot-3 runner who's closer to 230 pounds than the 221 listed on the Vols' official roster, Hurd has commanded the attention of Tennessee coaches on both sides of the ball.

"He's done some really good things. He's a big back, that's the first thing. And he has the ability to stop and start very quickly, which is a unique skill-set for a player of his size," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "Shoot, I'm glad he's on our team. Keep the chains moving Jalen."

Gillespie, who knows SEC football up close after a steady career at the University of Florida, thinks Hurd also has gained a greater love of the sport after Hurd missed essentially his entire senior season at Hendersonville's Beech High School with a shoulder injury.

"I think the biggest thing for him is that he hasn't played football in a long time," said Gillespie. "He would play football on Mars, I think, if he had to right now. He's just so gung-ho to play ball again. He's a confident kid anyway and the fact that he really wants to get back out here to play and prove something, that motivates him, that pushes him.

"That's good that he has that confidence, because he is making a lot of mistakes. But that's what you do when you're new to something. You have to make those mistakes in order to learn from it."

Also acknowledging Hurd's mistakes, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Hurd's arsenal of abilities from the tailback spot lends a bright future.

"I like what I've seen. He's a complete running back," Bajakian said. "He can run between the tackles, he can get outside, he can use his size. He has a loose athleticism to make a guy miss in space, he has good hands, he learns fast. I'm very excited about him and what he brings to the table for this offense in the future.

"He can improve with his pad-level, and a little bit with his vision. But for a guy that should be a senior in high school, I'm extremely encouraged by what he's been able to accomplish on the field thus far."

With Marlin Lane not a full participant in practice this spring since breaking a bone in his left hand, Hurd has a unique opportunity to continue earning extra reps against his present backfield competition --- Devrin Young, Alden Hill, Justus Pickett. Moreover, Gillespie said, Hurd's next step will be largely determined by what he does when Gillespie isn't looking over his shoulder.

"The thing with him is, he's an athletic kid and he's a long kid. He makes mistakes and he's able to put himself back in position, which is something that's God-given," Gillespie explained. "There's a lot of guys that make a mistake and he just can't get back to it. He'll make a mistake and step a little too wide but he's able to get back to it. He'll miss a cut, but he's athletic enough to get back to it. Those are the things that we're able to see early on.

"He has a lot of natural, God-given ability but I think the sky is the limit if he'll just continue to process and to develop a strong work habit. What he does when I'm not around. What he does when I'm not around, watching film and just becoming a smarter football player."

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