KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Jalen Hurd understands there's a game beyond the game. He's just not sure how much he'll play along.
On this day, he obliges, spending 25 minutes with a reporter in the plush Peyton Manning Room of Tennessee's Anderson Training Center. Hurd is smart, thoughtful, supremely confident. He's somewhat guarded and edgy, but not in a bad way. The Vols junior running back handles himself well in a setting that, admittedly, he has avoided, even if it could enhance his national profile.
"The media's the one that really talks about the Heisman," Hurd said. "I'm not a huge media guy, don't talk to the media that much. I'm not saying I should be in the talk, but a lot of it has to do with talking to the media."
"Also, I need to put up better numbers. The guys who are in the Heisman talk, their numbers are ridiculous."
Even if Hurd speaks more away from the field, he knows he needs to speak louder on it to compete for a goal that, aside from a national title, he covets more than any other. The top two running back contenders for the 2016 Heisman, LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, are already media stars who produce otherworldly statistics.
Hurd is set to become Tennessee's career rushing leader -- he needs 892 yards to break Travis Henry's mark of 3,078 -- in only his third season as a Vol. But he might be the SEC's third or fourth most talked-about back, behind Fournette, Georgia's recuperating Nick Chubb and maybe even Alabama's young marvel, Bo Scarbrough. Hurd had 301 rush yards in his final three games of last season and six 100-yard performances, but he has yet to record a 200-yard game or eclipse 48 yards on a rush.
He needs to set himself apart with highlights but also a narrative: college football's most unique, and complete, back.
"I just want to reach my maximum potential," Hurd said, "which I think is pretty damn high."
There's the Hurd swagger. He knows he hasn't truly arrived in college football, but he has no doubt that he can get there.
Hurd isn't very active on social media, especially during the spring practice grind. But when Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor went on a Tennessee-trolling Twitter rant two weeks ago and mentioned how he's the only Jalen who gets talked about in the SEC, Hurd fired back.
O yea they got one but I forgot I'm the only Jalen they talk about in this conference 😂— Jalen Tabor (@_31Flavorz) April 15, 2016
6'0 , 190. Jst talkin for attention. Not gonna end well buddy 🙏🏽— Jalen Hurd (@MrHurd_1) April 15, 2016
Few running backs can put down a 6-foot defensive back, especially an All-SEC one, but few running backs stand 6-4 and weigh 240 pounds. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs is an aerospace engineering major, but even he struggled with the mental arithmetic when he first shared the backfield with Hurd.
"The tallest running back I've ever seen," Dobbs said. "Handing the ball off, I turn and we're looking eye-to-eye with each other, it's weird."
The height question has chased Hurd, but he always outruns it. Hurd silenced his skeptics by setting state records for rushing yards (3,357) and points (294) as a junior, averaging 10.6 yards per carry and 240 yards per game while at Beech High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He surpassed 390 yards three times, including in Beech's state title game victory, when he set records for yards (394) and touchdowns (seven).
Growing up just outside Nashville, Hurd looked up to another plus-sized ball carrier. Former Tennessee Titans star Eddie George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State, remains Hurd's favorite running back. At 6-3 and 235 pounds, George was unique in size and endurance, as he eclipsed 310 carries in his first eight NFL seasons, topping out at 403 in 2000.
Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord won't forget the first time he saw George warming up at Ohio Stadium.
"He ran by me and I was like, 'Wow.' He was huge," said DeBord, a Michigan assistant at the time. "Then, when I came here and you see Jalen, you're like, 'Wow, he's huge.' "
Tennessee's opponents react similarly before games, much to the amusement of Hurd's teammates.
"It's funny," said Vols running back Alvin Kamara, the lightning to Hurd's thunder. "Guys adjust their uniforms and try to peek. It's like, 'Oh, that's No. 1. Dang.' "
Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who faced Hurd in high school, describes him as a "load" with a "mean streak."
"If you're not running with an edge," Hurd said, "you're not playing football."
The power element is just part of his composition.
While it's tempting to compare Hurd and Derrick Henry, the similarly built Alabama excavator who won the Heisman last season, it's misleading. Henry is more like George, a workhorse (he eclipsed 25 carries eight times, and 35 carries four times last season) in an offense built around power.
Hurd, meanwhile, works in a no-huddle system that typically operates from the shotgun. Though Hurd has eclipsed 25 carries only twice, he has recorded more receptions during a four-game stretch as a freshman (20) than Henry had during his Alabama career (17). Hurd has 57 career catches and four touchdowns.
"At Tennessee, we catch, we block, we run," Hurd said. "That's our standard here, to be a complete back."
That could be Hurd's entry to a crowded field of elite backs. Fournette will log more carries in an offense similar to Alabama's. Chubb, depending on his health, also could get more opportunities. While it's difficult to match McCaffrey's omnipresence, Hurd can distinguish himself in multiple ways.
He made blocking a priority when he arrived at Tennessee, learning how to contort his body at optimal angles, punching up his hands, remaining low and shuffling his feet to redirect his power. He's constantly peppering DeBord and Vols running backs coach Robert Gillespie about different ways to get touches, whether it's running more under-center plays or increased opportunities as a receiver.
"Very driven," coach Butch Jones said. "He's constantly researching."
When Gillespie visited Hurd's home during recruiting, he saw a player who had meticulously planned out his future. Hurd still keeps some goals to himself, but the Heisman and a national title topped (and still top) his list. As a Tennessee fan in a family full of them, he also wanted to restore greatness.
The first step was saying yes. Hurd was among the homegrown headliners of a transformative 2014 recruiting class that ranked fifth nationally and included 11 ESPN 300 prospects (four from Tennessee).
"It's hard to get a kid from Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, to want to come here," Gillespie said, "if Jalen Hurd, your best player in the state, doesn't want to come here as well."
As Tennessee traveled to the Vol Walk before a 2014 game against Alabama, Jones went to the back of the bus and sat next to Hurd. Jalen, he told the freshman, I don't like feeling like this.
Jones hated being a three-touchdown underdog. He wanted Neyland Stadium to intimidate opponents again. He wanted the Vols to carry themselves like an elite team again.
"I got you, Coach," Jones recalled Hurd telling him. "Just give me the ball and I'll take care of it."
Added Hurd: "I never go into a game thinking we're the underdog."
Sitting in the room celebrating Tennessee's most decorated player, Hurd talks briefly about legacy. He wants to break Henry's record. He wants other individual honors. He wants to be viewed as a dependable piece on a championship team.
"A lot of the Heisman, too," he noted, "is your team doing well."
He can't completely control the spotlight. He shares a backfield with Kamara, whose electric running style and bubbly personality make him a hit inside and outside the program. After averaging 6.5 yards per carry and having five multitouchdown games last season, Kamara was named a co-captain last week. But he downplays the theory that his popularity outshines Hurd and said he thinks his teammate should get more credit nationally.
"If anybody watches the film," Kamara said, "I don't think they would be like, 'Nah, he doesn't deserve to be mentioned in that Heisman race.' "
Consistent production will propel Hurd. The knock, according to coaches who have scouted him, is whether he'll bring maximum effort each week. He started and finished strong last season but had some middling performances in the middle. Tennessee's coaches have challenged him to be a complete back.
"Jalen's one of those individuals you only have to challenge once," Jones said.
The external piece, sharing more of himself, could help, and those inside the program encourage Hurd to open up. But he wants to be judged on hard skills, not soft ones.
"He's not an attention-seeker," Gillespie said. "Anybody would want the respect that's due, but he's not going to beg for it.
"His work should speak for itself."