KNOXVILLE — When the NCAA decided this offseason to move kickoffs up 5 yards, Devrin Young probably let out a sigh of frustration.
More kicks sailing over his head meant fewer chances for the Tennessee sophomore to touch the ball and make an impact for his team.
So the diminutive Young carved out a role for himself with the Volunteers' offense as a running back, but that was simply a result of reaching another goal he had.
"It was always just gaining the respect of the guys I'm playing with," Young said earlier this month. "Obviously I've never been the biggest guy, so I don't know what it's like relying on an underdog-type guy. But as long as they believe in me and they're comfortable with me, that's all that really matters in my eyes.
"I remember asking a few of the guys how they feel with me back there. They say they don't even think about it and it don't even bother them. That makes me feel good."
At 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds, Young always has had to prove himself. When the hometown Vols offered him a scholarship during his senior season at Bearden High School, it fulfilled a longtime dream. Despite his gaudy senior season — 2,271 rushing yards and 36 offensive touchdowns — Young still had to show he could play at the Southeastern Conference level.
It took all of one touch: Young's 43-yard punt return against Buffalo was Tennessee's longest in four seasons.
He has been vying this offseason for touches in a tailback competition with Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. His offensive resume as a freshman consisted of a change-of-pace role, but Tennessee's coaches saw Young as more than a specialist. As he improved his ability to run between the tackles, he ascended ahead of Lane behind Neal in the backfield pecking order, though the Vols will use all three.
Even if he couldn't run inside, Young's speed and explosiveness in space would have given him a role in the offense.
"His ability to make guys miss and also run between the tackles and also outside, it's been a big help for us," running backs coach Jay Graham said. "He's so fast. He's not very big, but for his height he's not small.
"The thing is it's hard to make a tackle on that guy. When he's running full speed and he's doing all this [juking], it's hard to get a good shot on Devrin. That's the thing he's starting to realize even more, that in the box I can be hard to tackle and I can use my speed to make plays."
In Tennessee's second preseason scrimmage, Young took a 5-yard completion 72 yards for a touchdown, and though the Vols have big-play ability in their receiving corps, Young provides a different style of it.
"Any team can benefit by having a group of guys who can make something happen, and I just hope that I can be one of those guys," Young said. "We've got plenty of players who have shown they can make big plays and who will. I hope I can just add to the list."
The key to Young's season, which begins Friday night when Tennessee plays North Carolina State in Atlanta, will be his durability. If he can survive the hits he'll take on punts and kickoffs — when he actually gets the ball, that is — he's likely to get more offensive touches than last season.
Graham said the Vols have to be careful with Young, both physically and mentally, in dual roles.
As long as Young continues earning his teammates' respect by "showing toughness, trying to make plays and consistently just grinding each and every day," the number of kickoffs he gets to return or the number of carries he gets have less meaning.
"I hope so," Young said of earning an offensive role. "Coaches say I'm doing good. Coaches are proud of me.
"But I hold a high expectation for myself. So does each player on this team for themselves. I'm just going to try to do my best."
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 ...