KNOXVILLE — Tailbacks Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane combined to accumulate more than 1,700 yards rushing and receiving for Tennessee's offense last season.
The other returning players who ran the ball or caught a pass in 2012 combined for 605. And that list includes two guys now playing linebacker and holder on place-kicks.
The line will be the strength of a Volunteers offense replacing pretty much its entire passing game from a season ago, but starting in Saturday night's opener against Austin Peay, Tennessee may have to lean on the tandem of Neal and Lane while new starting quarterback Justin Worley and one of the nation's youngest receiving corps find their groove.
"We've talked about it a little bit," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said Wednesday. "These guys are mature guys. They understand that they do have some of the most experience. They're two of the most experienced guys on this offense other than the offensive line. They understand the strength of our football team is our offensive line, and we have to do a great job of of helping those guys protect the quarterback and also helping those guys on the perimeter.
"You do that by being able to run the ball. We've talked about that a lot, so that's something that they always have in the back of their minds. On Saturday night, we'll see if they buy into it and they really go out and make plays."
Neal, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound senior, is listed atop the depth chart and likely will start Saturday's opener, but Lane certainly will get his opportunities in the kind of backfield platoon that's becoming the norm. The pair won't be mentioned in the same breath as some of the SEC's other backfields, and neither has shown the dynamic game-breaking talent of, say, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon or Georgia's Todd Gurley, but Neal and Lane -- both former Rivals.com four-star recruits -- have been productive players in the league, which jumps out on an offense still needing to identify its go-to guys.
"Marlin and Rajion are right there," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian replied when asked where the two tailbacks fall on his list of potential playmakers. "Those are guys that are reliable. They've been assignment-sound. They've executed the offense through the course of spring ball and training camp, and those are guys that I'm excited to see what they can do when the lights go on on Saturday night."
Before a sprained ankle cost him two full games and most of two others, Neal was on pace for a 1,000-yard season last year. In the first five games he averaged 92 yards. Lane led the Vols in rushing in six games in 2012. The 5-11, 205-pound junior, despite missing the last week of spring practice due to a disciplinary suspension, appeared to be edging ahead of Neal midway through August before a couple of minor injuries.
Neal, Bajakian said, has started to play faster as he has become more comfortable with the Vols' new offense.
"Being an older guy, having these guys kind of grow up from high school and coming from different places and seeing me play, I want to live up to their expectations," Neal said in his unmistakable Atlanta drawl. "I want to be a guy that they can say, 'You know what, I played with him, and that was a hard work and good player, somebody that was a true competitor.'"
The challenge for Tennessee's run game will be stiffer this year. Last season, Neal, Lane and the offensive line had the luxury of a quarterback, three receivers -- including two of the draft's first 34 picks -- and a tight end who either were drafted or still remain on NFL rosters as rookie free agents.
With so much inexperience at quarterback and receiver, the Vols can expect to see stacked boxes from defenses hoping to force Tennessee to generate yards and points through the air.
"Making plays," Lane said. "I'm pretty sure that's what we have to do to get our receivers open, just as well as they've got to make plays to get us open in the run game."
Asked if there were any pressure in being the only proven options on an offense with so many unproven skill-position players, Neal shrugged and smiled.
"I feel like once you go out there and get hit, game on," he answered. "You don't think about carries; you don't think about throws. You just really go out there and play and worry about it at the end of how many times you touched it and how many times you didn't.
"I have personal goals -- 1,000-yard rusher, couple hundred receiving -- but the ultimate goal is to be a winning program."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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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