KNOXVILLE -- Rajion Neal is back at home after a season away.
Marlin Lane is back at 100 percent after a nagging injury.
Devrin Young and Tom Smith are back on the scene after playing some as freshmen.
Tennessee simply hopes somewhere in the four-way battle there's a combination that can carry the Volunteers back to a successful running game.
"They're running the ball really well," UT coach Derek Dooley said after Saturday's practice as the Vols finished up the first week of spring practice. "They're doing what we're coaching them to do. They just have to keep doing it with consistency."
Most of that consistency comes from running with a physical style that UT has been lacking since Montario Hardesty's 2009 season. Though Tauren Poole broke the 1,000-yard barrier in 2010, the Vols' tailbacks had a forgettable season a year ago. Poole and Lane, UT's top two backs, combined for just 3.7 yards per carry and seven touchdowns.
With Poole gone, the Vols are left with an unsettled backfield situation that includes midterm enrollee Alden Hill. There's a new coach on the block, too, in Jay Graham, the former UT tailback who brings an intensity to practice, making the entire group do 10 up-downs if one player fumbles a ball in a drill. Graham returned to his alma mater after establishing himself as a quality coach and recruiter in three seasons at South Carolina.
Neal believes he's returned home as well after spending last season primarily as a receiver or change-of-pace runner.
"It was definitely some conversations, some meetings, some phone calls," the rising junior said of his switch. "But after the good recruiting they did getting all the receivers in, getting Justin [Hunter] back, getting Da'Rick [Rogers] back healthy, they felt we had enough at receiver. We knew we were lacking and struggling in the running game, so they moved me back, a guy that had experience to compete with Marlin and help the backfield out."
As a freshman in 2010, Neal spent six games as Poole's primary backup and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Ball-security issues cost him his job that season and prompted a more full-time role at receiver after the the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Georgia native fumbled twice against Georgia in October. Neal struggled to run with the desired conviction and toughness, though his speed made the Vols explore other ways of getting him involved.
"I wanted to come back a lot because this is where I feel natural," he said. "This is what feels comfortable. This is where I feel at home. This is something I don't have to think about: I just go, react and play fast."
After a fast start of his own, Lane ran into the proverbial freshman wall midway through last season as he struggled with being too hesitant in the backfield. Part of the problem was lingering pain in his left knee, the same one in which he tore an ACL during the high-school playoffs his junior season. The Florida native had just one touch against South Carolina and none against Vanderbilt, and the injury sapped the dynamic ability he showed back at Daytona Beach's Mainland High School and required arthroscopic surgery in December.
"I'm feeling better than I've [ever] felt," said the 6-foot, 205-pounder, who said he wasn't satisfied with his freshman season. "I could have done better, but I'm glad I got that out of the way. I'm ready to start off a new journey."
The start of the journey this spring brings a competition for touches. The Vols have made fixing the nation's 116th-ranked rushing attack a major emphasis this spring. Though Dooley and his staff noted throughout last season that there was more than one problematic source, a good rushing attack starts with the backs and offensive line.
Dooley said Saturday he's seen some early positives in the first week of work.
"The progress that we're making is everywhere," he said. "Here's what I'm seeing: the offensive line playing with a little more aggression, the receivers taking a greater interest in helping us block on the perimeter and the runners are [running] with a lot more discipline, hitting the holes a lot faster and playing behind their pads.
"Now it's only been two days in pads, so we're not ready for a national declaration that we can run the ball now. I hesitate to say things to you guys because then it's, 'We're going to lead the country in rushing.' We're just doing a little better, [and] I'm proud of where we are right now relative to where we were."
The 5-8, 171-pound Young could fill a role as a change-of-pace scatback with the speed, burst and explosiveness that make him the Vols' top kick and punt returner. At 207 pounds, Smith is more of a power back. The Vols liked the 6-2, 217-pound Hill's combination of size and speed.
Neal and Lane, though, are fighting for the spot as the featured back, though Dooley always has preferred to use two primary backs.
"I just like being around him, man," Lane said of Neal. "He's a character. Just watching him, you can learn a lot because he played running back when he first got here. We can click on things.
"We're going to need each other to push each other to keep going and keep working. Competing against each other is going to make us a lot better."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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