THE DIRECTOR: Tennessee legend, first-year Vols assistant, and former South Carolina running backs coach Jay Graham.
Way back after the disappointing 2011 season ended, the Vols were known to be going after a running backs coach. It didn't take Derek Dooley to begin -- and end -- the search with the one person he wanted: Graham. The former Vol jumped at the opportunity to come "home" and try to help resurrect a stagnant running game and once-proud program. He left elite SEC running back Marcus Lattimore and East rival South Carolina to do so. UT didn't have a running backs coach in either of Dooley's first two years, and the results showed that. The Vols were inexplicably 116th out of 120 FCS Division teams in rushing at 90.08 ypg. Now, it's Graham who'll try to improve on numbers that almost have to improve.
THE CAST: 5-11, 210 Jr. Rajion Neal, 6-0, 205 So. Marlin Lane; 5-11, 205 So. Tom Smith; 5-10, 180 So. Jaron Toney; 5-8, 165 So. Devrin Young, 6-2, 220 Fr. Alden Hill [Fullbacks: 6-2, 251 Sr. Ben Bartholomew; 5-11, 206 Austin Bolen; 6-2, 240 So. Austin Taylor]
[Coming Soon: Davante Bourque, Quenshaun Watson -- arriving in August]
So many questions abound and surround this unit, which is desperately needing a player or two to emerge. We're not even talking about stardom here, either. Instead, we just need somebody to be a respectable running back. Home-run threat Neal is back at tailback for the spring and will try to prove that's where he belongs after turning some heads at receiver late last season. Then there's Lane, two years removed from a knee injury and apparently completely healthy. Young is a jitterbug who needs touches, and Hill is an intriguing newcomer. This is the last opportunity for one of these guys to seize the reins at the position before highly-touted Bourque gets on campus in August. At fullback, it's Bartholomew and a bunch of highly respected walk-ons after Channing Fugate jumped over to inside linebacker. Senior Tauren Poole has moved on to test the NFL waters.
OFFSEASON BUZZ: Lane is completely healthy and supposedly has regained some of the burst that made him one of Florida's top running backs as a high school junior. Neal is rejuvenated and excited about going back to running back where he must take advantage now or never unless he wants to move back to receiver, where he has the potential to shine. It's also -- in my opinion -- do-or-die time for Smith. If he doesn't make a move and with many fresh bodies coming in this next year, he's a prime candidate to transfer if he can't crack the rotation. As for Hill? He has been a workout monster so far, and coaches love his size. The Vols don't have anybody in the backfield like him.
THE PLOT THICKENS [THREE SPRING STORYLINES]:
- What Kind Of Player Is Marlin Lane? We will know soon enough. Is he the electric talent who was coveted by most of the top teams in the Southeast, the one who out-shined Mike Blakely and others as a prep junior and showed SEC potential against Georgia along with an early-season knack for getting in the end zone? Or is he the painfully slow running back who was caught too many times from behind and failed to show the necessary vision to be a go-to back? He says he's healthy, so excuse time is over.
- Raijon Returns To Running Back. He's a game-changer with his 4.4 speed. He has the size at 205. He is perhaps the Vols' most dynamic play maker. Coaches know they need to get the ball in his hands more, so he's been given the opportunity to go back to running back. Though he has sprinter speed, he hit a freshman wall at the position and never really got untracked as a sophomore. Neal has to do a better job at protecting the ball, but he can be the type of player the Vols need at the position if the light ever comes on.
- Can Chaney Take Advantage Of The Change-Of-Pace Options? There is Young, who is a hiccup-quick player who can sprint out, line up in the slot, catch passes, take the ball on speed sweeps, etc. Then there's Hill, who could give the Vols some jumbo looks and get the ball in short-yardage situations. Then there's the "are-they-or-aren't-they-SEC-players?" duo of Toney and Smith. This will be a big spring session not only for the players needing to carve their niche, but for the coaching staff who needs to learn where to best use them also.
CLOSING CREDITS: Mere months after the most embarrassing season in the history of Tennessee's rushing offense, the Vols have reason to be cautiously optimistic, beginning with up-and-coming coach Graham. There is also a wide array of talent and a nice mixture of power, speed, pass-catching ability, youth and experience. It seems there are pieces there, but using those pieces to develop a consistent running game just may be the difference in UT's return to the SEC's elite or its third coaching search in four years.
Missed the other installments? Catch up here.
- March 19: Intro/Quarterbacks