This is part two of post-spring practice breakdowns of each position unit on the Tennessee football team. It’ll review what progress was made during spring practice, look ahead at incoming players and their potential impact this year and what fans can expect this fall.
Senior Rajion Neal (5-foot-1, 211 pounds)
Career stats: 229 carries for 1,039 yards (4.5 YPC) with 7 touchdowns. 39 receptions for 518 yards (13.3 YPC) and 5 touchdowns
Class of 2010’s No. 16 running back in 247’s composite rankings
*Junior Marlin Lane (5-foot-11, 205 pounds)
Career stats: 195 carries for 984 yards (4.8 YPC) with 4 touchdowns. 46 receptions for 389 yards and 2 touchdowns
Class of 2011’s No. 11 running back in 247’s composite rankings
Redshirt freshman Alden Hill (6-foot-2, 217 pounds)
Career stats: None
Class of 2012’s No. 46 running back in 247’s composite rankings
Redshirt sophomore Tom Smith (5-foot-11, 213 pounds)
Career stats: 13 carries for 34 yards (2.8 YPC)
Class of 2011’s No. 39 running back in 247’s composite rankings
Arriving this summer:
*Freshman Jabo Lee (5-foot-10, 180 pounds)
Class of 2013’s No. 15 all-purpose back in 247’s composite rankings
Despite having one of the best offenses in school history last season, Tennessee’s running game was nowhere near special, especially in big games. The absence of a quality SEC running back has haunted the Volunteers in recent years.
Upperclassmen Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane would each be, at best, No. 2 options on a championship-contending SEC team, yet, the two’s differing skills sets gave UT an adequate ground game in 2012 that only needed to take pressure off the elite passing game.
Neal is one of the fastest players on the team and puts up unbelievable workout numbers, but much of that has never translated on the football field. The new coaching staff is challenging Neal to step up in his senior season to become a vocal leader and a playmaker on a team that lacks both.
“He has to be consistent every day to where he can look in the mirror and recognize who he is as a football player," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said of Neal. "When we look at film every day, we have to recognize who that is. That's the way I've talked to him about it and I think he understands it, so it's not a deal where we constantly challenge him and call him out. I think it has a lot to do with himself. He has a lot to prove to himself.”
Lane has average speed and is more of a between-the-tackles runner with just enough strength and elusiveness to pick up some tough yards. Both are also solid in the passing game. Neal even split time during the 2011 season at wide receiver.
Lane, however, is currently suspended from the team for “disciplinary reasons.” He didn’t practice after spring break. Coach Butch Jones recently said he’s still “on track” to return, but his status for this fall is still very much up in the air.
Alden Hill made the most of Lane’s suspension. The redshirt freshman was one of the surprise stories of spring practice. After enrolling at UT in January last year, Hill missed most of last year’s spring practice after getting mono. He spent the rest of his first year getting back to 100 percent. Hill isn’t as fast as Neal, or even Lane, but he has good size and ran for tough yards during the spring.
“(Hill) is an interior runner, an inside runner,” Jones said. “I think a lot of young backs want to bounce everything into the sidelines and that's what we're trying to teach them - how to run behind his pads, get north and south. He's an individual who should be able to get one or two yards moving forward because of his power.”
Tom Smith was the only other scholarship running back on campus, but he still appears to be a non-factor. Junior Devrin Young was a running back his first two years, but was moved to the slot by the new coaching staff.
Jabo Lee was the only running back Tennessee signed in the past recruiting class, but there are question marks about his academics and whether he’ll make it to campus this summer. He was injured during much of his junior and senior years in high school, otherwise, he most likely would’ve been a higher-ranked prospect.
Cincinnati had a 1,000 yard rusher in each of Jones’ three seasons there. Neal got hurt midway through last season and missed two games and wasn’t 100 percent the rest of the year, or he most likely would’ve topped the 1,000 yard mark.
Tennessee lacks proven offensive weapons and will be breaking in a first-year starting quarterback this fall. With one of the best offensive lines in the country, the running game should have its most productive season in recent years. Still, it doesn’t appear to have that top-tier back that can win big games in the SEC.