KNOXVILLE – Tennessee returns virtually all of its rushing production from 2012, but depth has been a concern.
That has become even more apparent in the last week after running back Marlin Lane has been held out of practice for disciplinary reasons with his return uncertain. In an instant, the two-headed attack of Lane and Rajion Neal has turned into just one.
Even if Lane returns this spring, which coach Butch Jones said on Wednesday was a possibility before the spring is over, finding another back ready to handle SEC work this fall is a priority.
That person might be redshirt freshman Alden Hill.
“He’s worked his way up there,” Jones said. “Alden continues to get better and better. He still needs to continue to learn the little nuances of how to run the football and not bouncing things to the sideline. He’s an interior runner. He’s an individual who brings it every day.
“You can see individuals who have a mentality get better and bring it every day, they usually get better. He’s one of the those.”
Hill, a former three-star prospect, redshirted in his first year on campus in 2012, but has found himself in line for action in 2013 – especially if Lane’s absence expands into the fall.
The 6-2, 215-pound back might not have the burst of Lane or Neal, but he brings other advantages to the field.
“I think it’s knowing his strengths as a football player,” Jones said. “He’s an interior runner, an inside runner. 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.”
While Lane is out and Hill is continuing to develop, that has put more of the workload burden on Neal, who led the Vols with 156 carries for 708 yards last season.
“I go in a little bit more, I take a little bit more of the carries,” Neal said. “It’s, once again, can Neal be durable? Can he go four or five plays in a row without tapping out? I kind of like that opportunity.”
Injuries/absences: Tight end Justin Meredith, linebacker Curt Maggitt, safety Jalen Reeves-Maybin, tackle Tiny Richardson, receiver Paul Harris, receiver Jason Croom, receiver Jacob Carter, corner Riyahd Jones and defensive tackle Maurice Couch continued to do non-contact work only on Wednesday.
Defensive tackle Daniel Hood was one new name on the injured list. Receiver Vincent Dallas returned to full-speed action after missing last week. Safety Geraldo Orta limped off the field at one point, but was able to return later in the practice. Tight end Brendan Downs was held out of practice and Jones said he’ll be out for the rest of the spring.
Lane and corner Eric Gordon both remained out of practice. Both are away from the team indefinitely.
. With Hood and Couch out, Greg Clark worked with Daniel McCullers as the first-team defensive tackles.
. Naz Oliver worked as the No. 2 cornerback. Jones said he doesn’t feel good about the second corner spot behind Justin Coleman right now. Daniel Gray, Oliver and Jones have all worked at that spot at different times this spring.
. Coleman had a nice play during a defensive drill when he forced a scout team running back to fumble. Safety Byron Moore picked it up and ran it into the end zone.
. In the same drill, walk-on tight end Charles Folger had a nice catch despite taking one of the hardest hits of the spring from safety Brian Randolph.
. The Vols’ technology staff is experimenting with a new hovercraft camera that flies over the practice field and takes high-angle film. Jones said it’s another way the Vols are looking for to gain an edge in preparation and film review.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga