Best running back from Knox? Could be Bishop

Marvin WestKarns/Hardin Valley, westwords

Starting next season, DeSean Bishop can resume his run from here to there. It is a long, long way.

The former Karns High star, now a Tennessee football freshman, will be sidelined much of 2023 with an ankle injury. Hopefully, he’ll catch up. He might someday be considered the best ever running back from the Knoxville prep scene.

DeSean Bishop

Jerry Mack, UT running backs coach, said he was heartbroken for DeSean.

“Man, that guy was really doing a good job. He was coming along. We had really high hopes for him.”

Bishop might make it back late this season. More likely, it will be treated as a redshirt year. Mack is confident DeSean will be back in the spring and probably a different, even better player.

“The philosophy, the velocity that he runs the ball with, getting downhill — he’s a downhill runner.”

There will be other roadblocks. But, Bishop has unusual talent. He is standard size for a college running back, 5-10 and 200, properly equipped, low center of gravity, excellent balance, strong enough to run over some defensive backs, nimble enough to make some miss, fast enough to speed past those who take poor angles.

Karns did not play in the biggest league but DeSean was not obscure. He was twice Tennessee Mr. Football, class 5A. He had 8,347 career rushing yards, second all-time to Troy Fleming’s 9,442 for Franklin. Bishop caught a few passes. His hands are good.

He was the leading rusher in the Tennessee spring game. He was learning to block, to protect Volunteer quarterbacks. He was injured in the first scrimmage of August.

There was a previous problem. There were six Tennessee running backs.

Senior Jabari Small, junior Jaylen Wright and sophomore Dyland Sampson are safely ahead in the competition for playing time. Other freshmen Cam Seldon and Khalifa Keith will fight for opportunities.

To become the best ever from Knoxville, DeSean must get well, get the football and do something exceptional with it.

Problem No. 2: There are famous names at the top of Knox who have withstood decades of challenges.

Until further notice, Reggie Cobb, Central High and UT, is the best ever. The senior committee of KnoxTNToday readers, Bud Ford, Roland Julian and Tom Mattingly, reviewed all the statistics and so ordained.

Richard Pickens, Young High and UT, is remembered as second best.

DeSean Bishop as Karns High School running back (Photo/Karns High Athletics)

Homegrown Cobb was one of the best-ever Bobcats. He was almost a football legend as a Volunteer. He ran for 17 touchdowns for Tennessee in 1987. He went over a thousand yards in his best NFL year.

Reggie didn’t want to attend UT. He wanted “to get the heck out of Dodge.”

It might have been better if he had.

Old Vol Ken Donahue, UT assistant coach, prevailed in a recruiting race. Cobb’s first game, as a redshirt freshman, was against Colorado. He gained 138 yards.

Reggie ran for 1,197 yards that season. His 17 TDs were second-most ever by a Volunteer. Gene McEver had 18 in 1929.

Cobb was not as good as a sophomore. He failed drug tests and was suspended. He did rehab and was reinstated. For half a season, he and Chuck Webb gave the Vols what may have been the best running combo in the country.

Cobb’s best game was the 21-14 victory over Auburn. He gained 225 on 22 carries. He had a 79-yard touchdown run.

Alas, after another transgression, coach John Majors dismissed Cobb – a few days before the Alabama game.

Pickens, a fullback, averaged 5.5 yards per carry and rushed for 736 yards in 1968 to lead the SEC. That was the most for a Tennessee back since Hank Lauricella in 1951.

“He was an excellent runner, a fine blocker, and one of the steadiest players on the team,” said coach Doug Dickey.

When Richard finished at UT, he was the third-leading rusher of all time (1,644 yards). Only Beattie Feathers (1,888) and Andy Kozar (1,850) had gained more.

“Richard loved Tennessee football,” said old teammate Jim McDonald. “You couldn’t keep him off the field. He was 110 percent all the time.”

Alas and alas, life did not end well for Pickens. Several (15 or 20?) concussions took a toll. He asked that his brain be donated to the Boston University School of Medicine to be examined. That was 2014. He was 67.

Dr. Thor Stein, pathologist, said “pretty severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” a degenerative disease linked to athletes after repetitive head injuries.

There are happier stories about great running backs from Knoxville. For one day and one play, Johnny Butler was best of all.

Johnny was all-state and all-Southern at Knoxville High School. His nickname in movie news bulletins was “Gone with the Wind” but nobody called him that. Teammates called him “Blood.”

At Tennessee in 1939, the sophomore was third-team tailback. George Cafego was first.

On the third Saturday that October, Butler made the most famous run in Vol football history. Undefeated Tennessee and Alabama were scoreless in the second quarter. Butler unraveled a serpentine 56-yard touchdown run, reversing the field three times and scoring untouched. Some Vols blocked two Tide defenders and said they hit three.

It is OK to wish for even more for DeSean Bishop. All he has to do is never give up, keep improving, earn opportunities as a Volunteer, hold on tight to the football, run for his life and make it to the end zone – multiple times.

If he does beat the odds and become the best from Knox, if there is a plaque on the wall somewhere in Karns, remember where the idea was hatched.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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