KNOXVILLE – Tennessee can look inside its own conference to see what kind of impact a top freshman running back could have immediately.
Georgia’s Todd Gurley (1,385 yards, 17 TDs) and Keith Marshall (759 yards, 8 TDs) joined LSU’s Jeremy Hill (755 yards, 12 TDs) and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards, 12 TDs) as SEC freshman backs who helped their team in 2012.
Gurley and Yeldon, in particular, were on display in the SEC Championship Game between Georgia and Alabama. The freshman duo combined for 275 yards and three touchdowns in that December contest.
The cupboard isn’t bare in Tennessee’s backfield, but the pressure is mounting to find the next top back in Knoxville. Rising senior Rajion Neal (708 yards, 5 TDs) and rising junior Marlin Lane (658 yards, 2 TDs), the top two backs in 2012, will be back in 2013. They were serviceable last season. Running backs coach Jay Graham wants them to build on that next season.
"They finished the season better than they started,” Graham said. “We've got to continue to build on what we finished with. I think that's the most important thing. Now they know me. They understand what I expect. [Last year] we spent the whole spring working on what to expect from me so now we can work on other things and I think that's going to help us."
Even if Neal and Lane emerge into a capable SEC duo, Neal will be gone after 2013. Lane will only have, at most, two years remaining. The depth behind them is continuously shrinking. Rising sophomore Quenshaun Watson did not return for the spring semester. Davante Bourque, a four-star signee last season, only made it a few days of practice before opting for junior college.
Rising junior Devrin Young has shown promise as a return man and situational runner, but isn’t viewed as an every-down back with his 5-7 frame. Alden Hill and Tom Smith are other scholarship running backs who have yet to crack the rotation.
Whether it ends up being an impact freshman who takes on some of the load in 2013 or somebody who adds to the depth and takes over in a couple of years, the need to add help in this year’s recruiting class is there.
Derrick Green, Rivals.com’s top-ranked running back for the class of 2013, is the top target. The Virginia native has named Michigan, Auburn and Tennessee as his top three schools and will make a decision on Saturday.
"Tennessee was good, Coach Graham, the tight ends coach, the wide receiver coach and the offensive line coach all came in," Green told Rivals.com this week after UT’s staff came to see him. "It was a good visit and it showed how much they wanted me that they sent all those coaches. They showed me some film, told me they will be running a pro-style offense and how it fits my style."
Green’s 6-foot, 220-pound frame is best suited for a power-running attack. Coach Butch Jones’ offense has the look of a spread attack, but Graham said that its somewhat of a misconception that Tennessee’s offense won’t have that power element
“We’re still a pro-style, we’re still fast-paced, we’re a downhill, power-running offense,” Graham said of Jones’ offense. “A lot of the plays will be the same. They’ll be called different things, but I’ve watched their plays on film and they do a good job running the ball. That was something that was important to me.”
The Vols haven’t put all their stock in landing Green, though. Johnathan Ford of New Hope, Ala., Keyante Green of McDonough, Ga., Peyton Barber of Alpharetta, Ga., and JoJo Kemp of Deland, Fla., are among the other running backs the Vols are targeting over the last two weeks of recruiting.
Landing the right one, or perhaps the right ones, will be one of the biggest tasks for Jones and Graham leading up to signing day on Feb. 6.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga