KNOXVILLE – Tennessee opens spring practice in just over two weeks. It will be the first glimpse of coach Butch Jones’ initial UT squad and several positions will be up for grabs, starting in the first practice.
Nooga.com will preview each position group leading up to the first practice on March 9.
Gone: Quenshaun Watson (left team), *Ben Bartholomew (graduation)
Returning: Rajion Neal (SR); Marlin Lane (JR); Devrin Young (JR); Tom Smith (RS SO); Alden Hill (RS FR); *Justin King (SO)
Arriving in summer: Jabo Lee (3-star)
Injuries: Lee missed much of his senior year of high school with a knee injury, but is expected to be healthy by this summer.
Outlook: There’s a reason that running back was such a huge priority in recruiting for Tennessee this year and will be again for the 2014 class.
It’s not a position completely void of talent and experience, but the group lacks a true top-flight SEC workhorse and doesn’t offer a ton of hope for future at this point either. Senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane have the potential to be a capable duo, though.
Originally recruited as a running back, Neal split time at receiver and running back before settling into the backfield permanently in 2012. Despite battling a late-season ankle injury, Neal piled up 708 yards on 156 carries and found the end zone nine total times with his receiving numbers added in.
And when he went down, it was Lane who picked up the extra work. He finished with 658 yards on the season, but also averaged a full yard-per-carry (5.5) more than did Neal.
Expect that duo to carry a vast majority of the load under Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. However, a new system could bring fresh opportunities for others. The small, yet elusive, Devrin Young has shown promise as a return man, but has yet to regularly crack the rotation at running back.
Though the 5-7 Young will likely never be an every-down type of back in the SEC, Bajakian will look to find ways to get the ball in his hands on offense in situations, whether that be as a traditional running back or on quick passes or reverses.
This spring could be a final chance for Tom Smith, who has had limited impact thus far in his two years in Knoxville. It’ll also be an audition for Alden Hill, who redshirted last year and could figure in as a running back or fullback in the new system.
Jones’ use of the fullback position in general is still to be determined, but sophomore Justin King, a former high school quarterback, is penciled in to be the starter at that spot.
Despite the absence of an elite runner, look for some bigger numbers from this unit. With a loaded offensive line, a lack of experience at the other skill positions and a coaching staff that emphasizes the run out of a spread look, UT’s run game should see a significant upgrade under whoever is hired to replace former running backs coach Jay Graham, who left for Florida State on Monday.
Quotable: Jones on the decision to add Jabo Lee to the 2013 recruiting class:
"We had a great need, as you all are aware, at running back. We felt that he would be a great addition to our offense because he fits everything that we do. His (high school) run scheme was a lot like what we do here, so we thought that it would be a great fit."
By the numbers:
• Neal: (UT career) 229 rushing attempts, 1,039 yards, 12 total TDs
• Lane: (UT career) 195 rushing attempts, 938 yards, 6 total TDs
• Young: (UT career): 39 rushing attempts, 149 yards; 10.4 yards/punt return; 22.0 yards/kickoff return
• Smith: (UT career): 13 rushing attempts, 34 yards
• King: (UT career): 2 rushing attempts, 18 yards
Projected initial spring depth chart: Until he’s dethroned, this will likely be Neal’s job to lose. Lane will push him, though, and regardless of who the technical starter is, both should see plenty of carries in 2013. Young will be third with Smith behind him. King will be the starting fullback with Hill getting looks at both spots.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga