KNOXVILLE – Nobody is confusing any of Tennessee’s current running backs with some of the elites backs who have passed through UT in the past.
There’s no Jamal Lewis on this team. No Charlie Garner, no Reggie Cobb, no Travis Henry, no Chuck Webb and no James Stewart.
But as far as experience at the offensive skill positions goes for the 2013 squad, the running backs are by far the most veteran unit on that side of the ball.
And though depth has developed in the form of redshirt sophomore Tom Smith and redshirt freshman Alden Hill, head coach Butch Jones knows his most experienced tandem of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane will be the spark for the run game in 2013.
“When you want to play with a level of physicality you also need running backs and right now Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane will get the bulk of the carries,” Jones said. “Tom Smith has come on a little bit, Alden Hill needs to be a special teams performer for us, get the tough yards for us. [But Neal and Lane] will see the bulk of the carries.”
There are reasons to believe that many of those carries will turn into productive plays. It starts with the offensive line the backs will be running behind – a group that enters 2013 with over 120 career starts as a unit and is brimming with future NFL talent.
Though Neal and Lane don’t have that kind of experience or recognition, they do boast 55 combined games played and a cumulative total of over 2,000 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on the ground in their careers.
Neal, who started the first six games of 2012 before being slowed by an ankle injury, will again begin the season on top of the depth chart. His 99-yard touchdown run in a situational scrimmage this fall helped his case, but Jones saw his day-to-day approach as the main reason to give him the starting nod.
“Rajion was just a model of consistency,” Jones said. “I thought he really improved in his pass protection skills, which he needed a lot of work on that area, and I think he really did a great job of embracing that role. Just again, understanding the run reads.
“Does he still have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. But I just think it was a day to day level of consistency.”
Neal, a senior, has logged more plays than any other offensive skill player on UT’s roster. Now a starter and a player who has played two different positions in his career – running back and receiver – he embraces the role of leader for the younger players.
“It just comes with the territory of being an older guy,” Neal said. “I do take pride in that. I do think it puts more pressure on me, but at the end of the day, that’s what I signed up for – to help lead some of these younger guys and put some more weight on my back.”
For Lane, staying healthy has been part of the issue as well. Regularly seen in a green, non-contact jersey throughout fall camp, the junior was wearing a wrap on his left knee during interviews on Tuesday.
“I’m getting back to 100 percent,” Lane said. “It’s just some old injuries messing with me, but I’m getting that taken care of.”
While Lane looks to overcome those issues and become a reliable second back, Neal is aiming high for 2013.
“A thousand yards rushing, then a couple hundred in receiving,” he said of his goals. “The ultimate goal is to have a winning program.”
OUT: DE Corey Vereen, DE Jacques Smith, CB Michael Williams, TE Justin Meredith, LB Curt Maggitt, WR Ryan Jenkins, TE Alex Ellis, CB Riyahd Jones
. Maggitt and Jenkins were both in uniform, but only worked on the side with trainers during the open portion of practice.
LIMITED: K George Bullock, S Brian Randolph, RB Marlin Lane, WR Paul Harris, WR Johnathon Johnson, LB Justin King
. Randolph was wearing a brace on his shoulder and Lane had a wrap on his knee. Harris and Johnson were both running with the receivers, but in non-contact jerseys.
. King was out of a non-contact jersey for the first time this camp. He was wearing a No. 35 orange jersey (same number as cornerback Jaron Toney) on Tuesday. He didn’t appear to be working too much during practice.
. There are several new walk-ons on the team now that class has started. Notable players include quarterback Patrick Ashford (Carson-Newman), offensive lineman Jay Heins (Ensworth School), linebacker Taylor Spivey (Maryville High) and linebacker Logan Cavendar (Tennessee Tech).
. Butch Jones singled out the work of walk-on cornerback Reggie Juin. Jones complimented his work ethic over the microphone while telling the scholarship players that they could learn from the effort and determination Juin has shown this fall. Juin, a converted running back, is listed as a second-team cornerback for the opener against Austin Peay.
. All of the scholarship newcomers have lost the stripe off their helmet. Newcomers started camp with a stripe and they had to “earn their stripes” to get it off. The newcomers’ big brother on the team was in charge of deciding when the stripe came off. Some of the walk-on newcomers still have one.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga