KNOXVILLE — At 5-foot-8 and 171 pounds, Devrin Young might not be the prototypical between-the-tackles running back.
Disproving that notion is far from the only thing the Tennessee sophomore has done this spring.
Already entrenched as the Volunteers' punt and kickoff return man, Young has shown an ability during four weeks and 13 practices that he can be an asset for UT offensively as a tailback. The speed and elusiveness has never been a question for the Knoxville product, as he's shown on special teams. In fact, it's that part of his game that helps him when he runs into an area crowded with bigger players.
"You know, it's funny because it's more intimidating running on kickoffs when you've got guys flying full speed down at you than it is running in between the tackles," Young said.
"Obviously when you're running in between the tackles, you've got to be more physical, you've got to be more fundamental, you've got to hold that ball tighter and you've just got to take what you can get sometimes."
Young first made noise out of the backfield this spring in UT's first scrimmage, when he totaled 119 yards on eight rushes and three receptions. He added 35 yards on seven carries in last week's scrimmage. The Vols close spring with Saturday's Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium, where Young will hope to finish with a flourish.
Jay Graham, the Vols' new running backs coach, said Wednesday that Young has improved "getting the tough yards" in addition to his pass protection. The former UT tailback even admitted Young's performance been a surprise. He added that though Young's background as a returner has helped him, there's been a learning curve.
"Returning, there's stuff all over the place and you're looking at the whole entire field," Graham said. "I think running the ball, it happens slower. I think that's the thing where he's had to work with.
"You have to be a little bit more patient because you're up on the ball, but you're waiting for those bigger guys to get off and get to the second level. He's kind of done well understanding that. First week, not so much. Next week, got better, and now he's starting to understand, 'If I'm patient, then I can control my speed and accelerate and make more plays.'"
Though his debut was delayed by a broken collarbone suffered before the start of fall camp, Young made plays for UT in the return game last season. He averaged 23.3 yards per kickoff return and nearly 12 yards on eight punt returns. His first touch was a 43-yard punt return against Buffalo last October, and he had kickoff returns of 50 and 60 yards against Georgia and LSU.
He had nine offensive touches all of last season, and his spring performance might warrant an increase in that number next fall.
"I know coach [Derek] Dooley has giant plans for him with special [teams]," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "There's no question about that, but from the offensive side, he's played exceptionally well for us playing tailback. We're really pleased to have him out there. There's a lot of things you can do with him.
"He's like that toy you had as a kid. He has a lot of physical abilities and a lot of skill level and it's fun to watch him grow and mature and understand a little bit more. He can assume a few more roles."
Therein lies Young's challenge. A couple of big hits on kickoffs slowed him last season, and an increased role would raise the risk of him getting banged up. His durability limited his effectiveness at the end of last season, though Young attributed that to his preseason injury.
"Last year, I was starting off on a different foot," he said. "I came from an injury, so everything that I had worked for in the offseason kind of went off a little bit. I kind of lost it, but this round, I'm stronger, I'm faster, I've been able to work and I feel like that's just making me more durable."
In a backfield battle for carries with two other backs facing challenges of their own, Young's problem is almost out of his hands. Consistency is the key for Marlin Lane, who had just eight yards in the first scrimmage before a bounce-back 71-yard second scrimmage, and Rajion Neal has had recurring fumbling issues. Graham said he's not concerned with Young's struggle.
"He's been pretty durable this spring," Graham said, "and I don't think much about anything that happened in the past."
If Young can solve that issue, he has the potential to give UT's offense another dimension.
"I want to be a go-to guy," Young said. "I want to be somebody the coaches are looking forward to and want to get the ball."
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 ...