Offensively, it's been the most asked question since the end of last season and will will continue to be the most discussed topic till the Vols kick things off in the Georgia Dome against N.C. State. Can this Tennessee team run the football?
Everyone knows a successful run game involves more than just being good at the tailback position. But Tennessee must play better at the running back position if last year's woeful run game is going to be improved. In our continuing position by position look at the team, we take a closer look at the running backs.
Marlin Lane - After a slow start to the spring, Lane had the most productive day in the Orange and White Game and finished the spring much better than he started. Early in spring practice, Lane, who rushed for 280 yards as a freshman last season, was dancing too much at the line of scrimmage instead of attacking the defense north and south. The challenge for Lane is to be a more physical back and break more tackles. Lane is in his second full year of recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered his senior year in high school and the hope is that he is much closer to 100-percent, allowing him to be more explosive as a running back.
Rajion Neal - Neal's talent is undeniable. He brings size at 210 pounds and speed to the running back position that head coach Derek Dooley covets. After two early-season fumbles last year and the season-ending injury to Justin Hunter, Neal was moved to receiver. The Georgia native returned to the backfield this spring, in part at his request, and for half of spring, looked like he might run away with the job. Neal rushed for over 100 yards in the first spring scrimmage, but he finished the spring with continued ball security issues leaving some doubt as to how much he can be counted on this fall. Earning the trust of his coaches is Neal's priority.
Devrin Young - By the numbers, Young had the most consistent spring of all the running backs. Young was a huge weapon out of the backfield as a receiver as well as a carrying the ball. The sophomore is as dynamic as any player on the Vols roster. He's quick and elusive and explosive. What he's not is big and that's the continued question surrounding Young. Is he durable enough to really play full-time running back in the SEC? Is he more of a specialty player? The biggest summer challenge for Young might not be Young's; it might be to Jim Chaney and Derek Dooley to design the best plan to maximize Young's ability on the field. For Young, it's mostly about adding some size and preparing his body for the grind of a season in the SEC. However, even as explosive as he was in the spring, he was still tackled several times in the open field. That's an area he can continue to improve on as well.
Tom Smith - Smith rushed for 34 yards on 13 carries in just 3 games. Smith is still adjusting to being an I-formation tailback after playing in a spread formation at Apopka High School in Florida. The adjustment for Smith has been great and it's one he's still making. Smith made strides in the spring and played as physical, if not more physical, than any of the running backs. The sophomore really embraced the arrival of running backs coach Jay Graham and felt like at the end of the spring Graham had helped him really improve. If Smith is going to be a factor in the fall he must continue to adjust to being in the I-formation and he needs to improve his speed and quickness.
Alden Hill - Unfortunately, Hill got very little work in the spring after enrolling in January. Hill was kept off the practice field early in spring due to an NCAA Clearinghouse paperwork issue and then the second half of spring, Hill was a spectator as he battled mono. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff tries to use Hill moving forward and what he can show in August when he really gets his first work as a player.
Overall, the running backs showed some improvement under the first-year coach Graham, but they left spring with plenty of room to grow. The biggest challenge for Tennessee's stable of backs is to play more physical and that starts by improving mentally and physically to attack a defense and break more tackles.