JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Call it the forgotten factor in Tennessee's tailback competition.
Hitting holes, running physically, making defenders miss and generating yards after contact are all important, but the Volunteers' backfield must be able to pass-block, too.
Just ask Devrin Young how often the tailbacks work on the overlooked skill.
"Every day," the sophomore said after UT's practice at Science Hill High School on Friday afternoon.
"It's deadly when your starting quarterback gets hurt. You saw that last year, so pass-pro is a top thing in our meeting room. We're working every day to get better at it."
So while the tailbacks' rushing and receiving stats from today's key scrimmage will get the deserved attention, there'll also be an unseen aspect to each candidate's performance. Coach Derek Dooley said earlier in training camp that all three of the backs needed work in the area.
Running backs coach Jay Graham said as much earlier this week.
For an offense that figures to be built around its talent at quarterback and receiver, the back who best can identify a blitzer or hold up a rusher might get a slight edge in the battle for playing time.
"It determines how much you stay on the field," Graham said. "Every one of our guys has to be able to pass-protect, because we're going to throw the ball, and it's going to come times when you can't switch guys in and out based on their abilities to pass-pro. It's important they all know how to."
Toughness, timing and technique are key, Graham said. The attention detail at the college level is more advanced than high school, so there's a learning curve there for most tailbacks. Graham, a former UT runner himself, said he mastered it by doing it over and over. That's what he has this year's group doing.
"I think the biggest thing is repetition, the repetition of punching and seeing the defender," he said. "It's not as easy as you think, because it's right at the last second and it's having the perfect timing. Getting a lot of reps until they can do it correctly is the most important thing, so we try to drill it every day."
Still built like he could play the position, Graham's detailed direction has been an asset for UT's backs. If a player does a drill incorrectly in even the slightest manner, Graham starts it over. It's the same standard for every drill.
"He just tells us that we need to work on our punch and be more physical," Marlin Lane said. "At my high school, I was taught by our coach how to protect, but once I got up here I'm just trying to read the defense and learn who I've got by listening to the offensive line. That came along."
UT's tailback competition will come along a little after today's scrimmage. Rajion Neal and Young may be slightly ahead of Lane at this point, though Graham said Wednesday "it's too early" to see any true separation. The Vols have emphasized repairing last year's SEC-worst ground game since the spring, and there's been some evidence of improvement in practices this week.
Graham continues to say he likes what he's seen, but today will give him a better idea on individuals and his unit as a whole.
"I like the effort," he said. "They're trying to do the things that we talk about in the meeting rooms. They're trying to be physical; they're trying to finish runs; they're trying to pass-protect and do things the right way."
All of them, every day.
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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