Tennessee's Hurd says weight gain has made him better back

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd's bigger body is helping him produce bigger numbers.

He'd prefer a bigger win total.

Hurd bulked up to about 240 pounds before the season and adopted a more punishing running style that has helped him rush for 664 yards and eight touchdowns.

''I think Jalen Hurd needs to be in the conversation of elite running backs,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

Yet Hurd himself said his season has been merely ''decent'' thus far.

''Mostly because we haven't won,'' Hurd said. ''I try to always look at things I could have done more to help the team win.''

Tennessee's struggles help explain why Hurd's achievements have flown under the radar in this banner season for running backs nationwide. The Volunteers (3-4, 1-3 SEC) enter Saturday's matchup at Kentucky (4-3, 2-3) having lost four games by a combined 17 points.

Hurd said the close nature of Tennessee's losses makes the defeats more painful. He takes out his frustrations on opposing defenders.

''He's a downhill runner, but the main thing is that he runs hard,'' Kentucky linebacker Josh Forrest said. ''We'll have to gang-tackle him.''

Jones notes that sometimes a 1,000-yard rusher is a beneficiary of how well a line blocks for him. Jones said Hurd sets himself apart with his ability to gain yards after contact.

Hurd, who is 6-foot-4, believes his weight gain helped in that regard.

He weighed 221 pounds his freshman year and battled some nagging injuries late in the year. He has added about 20 pounds and says the change makes him more durable and explosive.

''You have linebackers who are 250-260,'' Hurd said. ''When I'm 220, it's going to be hard to break those tackles if you weigh that much less than them. You pick up some more weight, pick up some more explosiveness (and) experience, you can start to break those tackles and make guys miss.''

Hurd has stepped up mentally as well as physically.

He said he often studies film of other running backs across the SEC and NFL to see if he can pick up on anything that works for them.

''I definitely watch and study how they play, watch their runs, watch their blocking schemes, watch everything about their offense and just see how they're doing,'' Hurd said. ''You study other people's games to kind of improve upon your game a little bit.''

Hurd averages 4.6 yards per carry and ranks 41st nationally with 94.9 yards rushing per game, numbers that don't necessarily support Jones' notion that the sophomore should be mentioned among the elite. But he's been consistently productive against top-level teams.

He rushed for 106 yards against Oklahoma and 102 yards at Florida. Hurd ran for 92 yards at Alabama last week and briefly put Tennessee ahead with a 12-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Running backs coach Robert Gillespie says Hurd's ball-carrying abilities only tell part of the story.

''Put the film on,'' Gillespie said. ''Pound for pound, he's one of the best in the country. He does things other guys don't do. He catches the ball. ... He's a guy who makes you miss in space. He blocks ferociously.

''He's a tremendous guy without the ball in his hands, and I think that's the mark of a great back - not just what you do with the ball in your hands, but what do you do the other 60 snaps of the game when you don't have the ball?''

Hurd appreciates the compliments from his coaches but doesn't say whether he agrees with their sentiment that he's one of the best in the game. He's more interested in getting Tennessee's program back among the elite after a long absence.

''I'm not going to say where I rank or anything like that,'' Hurd said. ''I feel like I'm a good running back. Most importantly, I just want to help my team win every game.''

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AP freelance writer Keith Taylor from Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org

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