KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee football team was supposed to have a crowded offensive backfield this fall, and that could still be the case.
But the tailback position thinned Thursday, when junior-to-be Lennon Creer met with first-year Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin and opted to leave the program.
Creer didn’t practice Tuesday, either, but Kiffin said that absence was related to a sore knee he suffered Saturday — though he returned to finish that practice.
The once-prized signee out of Texas racked up 5.5 yards per carry and five touchdowns on just 109 career rushing attempts. His 50-yard kickoff return against LSU in 2007 broke a Southeastern Conference championship game record, too.
“Lennon’s no longer with us,” Kiffin said Thursday night. “We had a meeting, and he’s decided that he doesn’t want to be part of the program anymore. He’s going to go in another direction, and so we wish him the best of luck.”
Kiffin didn’t disclose Creer’s reasons for leaving, but he encouraged the player to finish this semester strong academically in order to benefit both sides in the future. Better grades will ease Creer’s transfer process and help UT with the NCAA’s annual Academic Progress Report rankings.
UT plans to follow typical transfer procedure with Creer, allowing him to transfer to any NCAA Division I school that isn’t on the Vols’ future schedules — which would included every program in the Southeastern Conference.
The Vols are left with three scholarship tailbacks to finish this spring — senior-to-be Montario Hardesty, sophomore-to-be Tauren Poole and January enrollee Toney Williams — but help is scheduled to arrive this summer. UT signed star tailbacks Bryce Brown and David Oku this year. Brown was the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, according to Rivals.com, which also tabbed Oku the country’s best “all-purpose back.”
“We’ve got a pretty good set of guys coming in that we’re excited about,” Kiffin said. “This gives some other guys more opportunities.”
Creer seemed poised for a breakout spring after impressing in limited work during his first two seasons at UT, but he started slowly this spring. He arguably slipped behind Hardesty and Poole on the depth chart, and Williams — a Chattanooga native who went to high school in the Atlanta area — exceeded early expectations.
“Obviously, we’ve still got some playmakers at the running back position,” Vols center Josh McNeil said. “Montario has already proven what he can do, and he’s a really good running back. Tauren is playing his best football since he’s been here, by far, and he’s looking really good. And Toney’s a bigger back that’s done really well for a freshman.
“We’ve got guys that we can put in there that can make the yards and run well in this system. I think we have really productive backs that are going to have really good seasons.”
McNeil was hesitant to comment on Brown and Oku, though he said the two would start this summer with a clean slate, “just like everybody else out here.
“I think if we just had the three guys we’ve got right now, (the tailback position) wouldn’t be a weakness,” McNeil continued. “I think it can eventually turn into a strength.
“The guys coming in, I guess they’re pretty highly-ranked and everything, so hopefully they can do some good things when they come in here. But you never want to expect too much until you can see them out there on the field. That’s kind of what I’ve learned since I’ve been here.”
Attempts to reach Creer on Thursday night weren’t successful.
Kiffin said the defense “had a great day” Thursday and “gave the offense some problems” in third-and-long drills.
“We moved some guys around on the offensive line, and they got after us,” Kiffin continued. “The No. 1 thing always when you come out here is to protect the ball, and the last thing you ever want to do is turn it over. That’s more important than anything we do in the program, is taking care of the ball, so it was disappointing to have some turnovers.
“But the other side of that is the defense is doing a great job. We’re excited that the defense had another day of (forcing) turnovers.”
Vladimir Richard wasn’t in pads Thursday after suffering a concussion Tuesday, but Kiffin said his starting guard should be back soon.
“Because of that, we moved some guys around and looked at some different things,” Kiffin said. “Whenever you do that, it causes a little bit of issues, but it’s good to work it out now, because that’s what happens in games sometimes.”