The offensive line isn't featured in this series, because they're an answer. One of the best units in the nation, the Vol offensive line is without question the overall strength of this team. And with Tennessee breaking in a new quarterback and all new wide receivers - questions we'll get to in the days ahead - a pair of veteran tailbacks must be counted on to set the pace for the Vol offense. No help is coming when freshmen arrive; the lone tailback signee from Butch Jones' first class, Jabo Lee, will not be wearing orange. There continue to be rumors that former Maryland tailback Justus Pickett could be eligible immediately, but even if that somehow happened he would still be behind the two returning starters in knowledge of the offense at the very least. Devrin Young seems to have made a home at slot receiver. There are few other options.
So a huge bulk of the offensive responsibility will fall on senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane. Will one of them separate themselves from the other? And can one or both of them give this offense the punch it needs in the run game to allow the Vols to be productive while the passing game grows up?
Rajion Neal got 46 carries as a freshman, then spent most of his sophomore year at receiver. But last fall he was the lead back in the pass-first Vol offense, and early in the season he made the most of those opportunities. After a rough start against NC State (22 carries, 53 yards), Neal got all the yards available to him against Florida (23 for 87) before breaking out against Akron (22 for 151) and Georgia (23 for 104). He was well on his way to another good game at Mississippi State (9 for 40) when he got hurt, unable to finish in an eventual loss to the Bulldogs and missing all of the Alabama and South Carolina games. By the time he returned the Vols were chucking it even more often; he never got more than 15 carries the rest of the way home, and that came in a multiple overtime game against Missouri. Neal's season numbers in 10 games: 156 carries for 708 yards, 4.5 per carry, 5 touchdowns (all in the first six games).
As Tauren Poole's backup in 2011, Marlin Lane finished with 75 carries for 280 yards. Neal was clearly established as the starter at the beginning of last season, as Lane didn't get double digit carries until the Alabama game. He was decent against the Tide and Gamecocks (15 for 55, 15 for 56) then improved from there, hitting the century mark against Troy (19 for 132) and Vanderbilt (16 for 108). In the last four games of the year against Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, Lane had 53 carries for 362 yards (6.8 per). Consider the competition and the defense's focus on the pass game, but that's still impressive. For the season, Lane played in all 12 games and had 120 carries for 658 yards, 5.5 per carry, and 2 touchdowns. Combine the two and a few spectacular moments from Cordarrelle Patterson, and the Vols finished fourth in the SEC in yards per carry as a team.
It seems to reason a team with two returning reliable contributors like this would split carries. No one in the SEC uses the workhorse model much anymore - last year Mike Gillislee led the league at 18.8 carries per game. The only person to average more than 100 yards per game on the ground was Johnny Manziel.
However, it's worth noting Butch Jones did not at all split carries at Cincinnati. Last year George Winn averaged 18.7 carries per game; the backup Ralph David Abernathy IV averaged 5.3. In 2010 and 2011 Isaiah Pead was the workhorse with 14.2 and 18.2 carries per game. The backups in those two years averaged 2.9 and 3.0 carries per game. Pead did play with Zach Collaros, a mobile quarterback who averaged 11.0 and 8.4 carries per game in 2010 and 2011. But it was Jones' pleasure to give the ball to one back and let him do the damage. He did split carries among two backs in two of his three years at Central Michigan, but those teams also included Dan LeFevour who led the team in carries from the quarterback position each of Butch's three years.
Because of Butch's history, I think there's a desire to see either Neal or Lane fully emerge in fall camp as "the guy". Lane had great numbers at the close of last year, but they came against bad defenses that were worried about Bray and Patterson and Hunter. Neal was strong against Florida and pretty great against Georgia, but what will either of them do when defenses stop focusing on the pass game and start focusing on them?
The line will be there to pave the way for them. Can one or both of these guys breakout this fall and be the playmaking face of the Tennessee offense? If Tennessee can successfully run the football, this ceiling for this team will increase significantly. Will one or both of them be the man to get it done?