KNOXVILLE - The plan didn't change much last week.
It might follow a similar course this week.
Tennessee very well could be without starting tailback and leading rusher Rajion Neal when the Volunteers host top-ranked Alabama on Saturday night, but after simply rolling along with their third and fourth options when Neal and Marlin Lane were unavailable against Mississippi State, there's no sense of panic.
"We'd like to have Ra out there," running backs coach Jay Graham said after Wednesday morning's practice, "but we'll go about it the same way, the same game plan [of] doing all the things that we know we can do. I talked to my backs, just 'Hey, the next guy has to step up,' and they've always known that. They did a good job last week of being ready."
Lane left the eventual loss to the Bulldogs in the first half with a quadriceps injury. Devrin Young and Quenshaun Watson stepped in when Neal sprained his ankle on the Vols' opening possession after halftime. Though Lane has returned to practice this week, Neal, who's run for 500 yards on 112 carries this season, continued to work with a trainer to the side of Wednesday's practice.
Coach Derek Dooley said Neal was doubtful to play against the Crimson Tide's vaunted defense. That would leave Neal and the diminutive duo of Young and Watson to carry the load. The 5-foot-8, 172-pound Young gutted out 58 yards on 13 hard-running carries with a costly fumble, and Watson, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound freshman, showed nice burst and speed on a 14-yard run in the third quarter.
"They went out and they performed at a pretty good level," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "We want them to hold on to the ball. That's what scares you. Those kids haven't got all the reps during practice of getting hit and holding on to the ball.
"Those things worry you. We've got to do a better job of ball security on our offense. We have to do that."
Tennessee could mix in some different looks as well, including the respective wildcat packages run by freshmen Alton "Pig" Howard and Justin King. The bowling ball-like Howard ran four times for 30 yards against Mississippi State. The Vols also could use dynamic playmaking receiver Cordarrelle Patterson out the backfield in addition to his usual reverses.
"He's a very good football player, so you've got to find ways to get him the ball," Chaney said of Patterson. "He seems to be pretty good when you just hand it to him. Maybe we'll do that.
"He's just a good player. If he catches a pass he's explosive. If you hand it to him, he's good. He's a talent out there on the field, so we'll find ways to get him the ball."
Sunseri facing son
Vinnie Sunseri, the son of Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, plays safety for Alabama, and his father spoke with evident emotion and a somber tone about seeing him on the opposite sideline on Saturday night.
"Emotionally for the family it's been really, really, really tough," Sal said. "I didn't think it would be this hard. I didn't imagine would be this hard, but it is very, very, very tough. We're both going to be professionals about it, we're going to do what we have to do and we're going to go out there and play our best football.
"It's going to be hard on Saturday night when that kid walks on the field and he hugs me."
Vinnie, Alabama's fourth-leading tackler who made his second interception of the season last week against Missouri, said in a phone interview with the Times Free Press last week that he and his father planned to meet and talk before Saturday night's game. The sophomore spent the weekend in Knoxville when both the Vols and Tide had their open dates.
Rivalry revving Vols
Tennessee maintained its energy on the practice field this week on Wednesday morning. It certainly helps playing a traditional rival, the No. 1 team in the nation and the defending national champion. Alabama last lost to Tennessee in 2006, the season before the Tide hired Nick Saban as coach.
"You went home, you didn't go to sleep," Graham, a former Tennessee tailback, recalled of playing in the Third Saturday in October rivalry. "It hurt, and that's the thing about a rivalry. You play so hard, you hit hard, you play so fast and you want to win that game. It hurts that much more.
"We've talked about it, and they understand. The energy of practice and everything, they're excited about this opportunity, to play against your rival but also they're ranked No. 1 in the country. That's two things you should get excited about going into the game."
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 ...