KNOXVILLE – With the running back position already lacking depth, the absence of Marlin Lane for the second half of spring practice was an unnerving event for the Vols.
The rising junior missed one practice for what coach Butch Jones termed personal reasons, he returned and then missed the last several practices, including the Orange and White Game.
Jones and running backs coach Robert Gillespie spoke in vague terms about Lane – only saying that he was away from the team for disciplinary reasons and had requirements that must be fulfilled to return.
It appears he’s met those standards. Jones reportedly told the crowd at Bradley Central High School last Friday that Lane is back working out with the team – a story confirmed by the AP on Sunday. Lane remains on the team’s official roster and is listed as an active student in UT’s directory. Both are good signs for the Daytona Beach, Fla., native.
That gives UT some breathing room at the position. Without Lane, the Vols had only one option, Rajion Neal, who had extensive game experience. The rising senior ran for 708 yards on 156 carries in 2012 despite fighting through an ankle injury. But the options were scarce behind him.
Two running backs – Quenshaun Watson and Davante Bourque – left the team in 2012. Redshirt sophomore Tom Smith struggled to prove himself in spring practice. Jabo Lee, the only running back signee in 2013, is unlikely to make it to campus this fall with academic struggles.
That left redshirt freshman Alden Hill as the only other backup option. He’d never played in a college football game, but did have a solid spring capped off by a 101-yard effort in the Orange and White Game.
"Today's performance summarizes his spring – he has been a great surprise,” Jones said of Hill after the Orange and White Game. “Does he still have a long way to go? Yes. Did he leave some yards out there? Yes. But, he has been an individual who has had great consistency in his performance.”
Lane, who has 195 carries for 938 yards through two seasons in Knoxville, gives the Vols another option to go with Neal and Hill in 2013. That safety net extends to 2014, when Neal will have graduated and Lane will be the most experienced back on the team.
UT already has commitments from highly-rated running backs Jalen Hurd and Treyvon Paulk for the class of 2014. But even though true freshman running backs have excelled in the SEC recently (i.e. Georgia’s Todd Gurley, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and others), it’s never safe to bet on one to instantly stabilize a position.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga