KNOXVILLE — With the other half of Tennessee’s two-tailback tandem missing, there’s more of a burden on Rajion Neal.
While there’s more opportunities with Marlin Lane’s future in limbo for disciplinary reasons, there’s also more work for Neal.
Not that he minds.
“It’s more opportunities to get better at my craft and take more of the reps, but at the same time, it’s a little toll on me,” he admitted after the Volunteers practiced on Wednesday morning. “On Saturday that’s what it’s going to be. I always agree that this league and the NFL [require] a two-back system, but if they’re willing to give it to me, I’m going to take it and I’m going to roll with it.
“I’m not afraid of going out there and carrying it about 20 or 30 times. Sunday I might just be laying on my back, but I’m not afraid. I’m trying to show them and let them know that I’d rather die out there than die on the sidelines.”
Though Lane’s status with the program remains uncertain, first-year Vols coach Butch Jones said an opportunity remains for the rising junior, who’s totaled 1,327 yards of offense and six touchdowns on 241 touches the past two seasons, to return.
“He has some criteria that have to be met,” Jones said. “He’s meeting that criteria, but as of right now, he’s still out. That’s all I’ll comment.”
Jones said the current plan is to stick with the tailbacks available instead of moving anyone to the position. With Lane absent, redshirt freshman Alden Hill, third-year sophomore Tom Smith and walk-on Deanthonie Summerhill are bumped up a slot in the pecking order, and incoming freshman Jabo Lee is expected to arrive this summer. If Tennessee was to make a position switch, Devrin Young, now at receiver after playing tailback his first two seasons, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the freshman who’s slated to play safety and ran 2,000 yards as a senior at Clarksville’s Northeast High School last season, are possibilities.
Hill, who ran some sprints on the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex’s indoor field as player interviews wrapped up long after practice ended Wednesday morning, is now the second option with Lane out, and Neal became the latest to heap praise on the redshirt freshman.
“Alden has made a giant leap from his freshman year to a redshirt freshman,” the rising senior said. “Alden last year, that was a madman. He didn’t care who was in the way, reads wrong — he was fixing to try to come get you.
“Now you can see Alden has a little more patience. He’s a little more comfortable because he’s actually learning where he’s supposed to be and what he’s doing. It’s nice to see Alden kind of give a little one-two then run somebody over versus 100 miles an hour into just anybody.”
The 5-foot-11, 211-pound Neal, the physically impressive back who was on pace for a 1,000-yard season, is working to develop his own physicality and change some’s perception.
“I’m tired of my coaches calling me soft,” he said, “so whenever I can, I’m trying to throw my body around. I’m trying to run physical, block harder, just be a student of the game and soak everything up that I can since this is my last go around. It’s something they like to pick on me with a little bit, so when my opportunity is called, I try to go out there and lay it on the line.”
Asked to single out some players that have impressed him this spring, Jones tabbed Neal and Hill, offensive linemen James Stone, Ja’Wuan James and Zach Fulton, linebacker Dontavis Sapp and cornerback Justin Coleman.
“I think both our quarterbacks,” he added, “continue to roll their sleeves up and bring it each and every day.”
Asked what he’s learned about his team as spring practice reaches its final week, Jones grinned and said he still needed today’s practice and Saturday’s Orange and White Game to complete the initial evaluation of his first team.
“I think we need to continue to demand more from ourselves, and our leadership needs to continue to demand more,” he continued. “I like this team, but I really do believe — and I’ve said it — our margin of error is very, very small. But you know what, I really think our fans are going to like this football team.
“I think they’re going to see a football team that it’s not cliche: they’re going to give their all for Tennessee. That’s something that we’re working on, but I enjoy coaching these players. They come in, they want more, they want to know how they can improve, and when you can do that, you’re going to continue to get better.”
Jones confirmed tight end Brendan Downs (knee) won’t play on Saturday, but the coach was unsure on the status of any other injured players. … Cornerback Riyahd Jones missed practice on Wednesday after suffering a knee injury in Saturday’s scrimmage, and Naz Oliver took Jones’ first-team reps instead of Daniel Gray. … Receiver Vincent Dallas returned to practice after missing a week with a concussion-like injury, but Paul Harris (hamstring), Jason Croom (hamstring) and Jacob Carter (ankle) remained sidelined. … At defensive tackle, Daniel Hood was in a green jersey and didn’t practice, though Trevarris Saulsberry returned after missing Saturday’s scrimmage and received some first-team work, as did Danny O’Brien and Greg Clark.
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 ...