KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's football offense recorded just its third 2,000-yard rushing season since 1999 last season, and though the man who gained most of those yards is done, coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian are accustomed to replacing productive running backs.
Rajion Neal led the Volunteers with 1,124 yards in 2013 -- the 11th-best single-season total in program history -- and the Vols may lean on one veteran and some newcomers to replace that rushing yardage.
In Jones' third and final season at Cincinnati in 2012, he had to replace Isaiah Pead, a second-round NFL draft who ran for 1,059 yards in 2010 and 1,259 yards in 2011. The Bearcats plugged in George Winn, and he ran for 1,334 yards in 2012.
Yet Winn was a fifth-year senior, and though Marlin Lane is back for his senior season with the Vols, Tennessee's backfield is getting a boost in the form of three freshmen: Jalen Hurd, Derrell Scott and Treyvon Paulk.
Hurd, the crown jewel of Tennessee's touted 2014 class, is already on campus, and the five-star tailback's first spring may be the most anticipated debut for a Tennessee freshman in a long time.
Who's back: Marlin Lane (101 carries for 534 yards and four touchdowns in 2013), Alden Hill (10 for 58 and one), walk-on Deanthonie Summerhill (20 for 115) and Justus Pickett (sat out last season after transferring from Maryland).
Who's gone: Rajion Neal (215 carries for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns) exhausted his eligibility, and Tom Smith (24 for 96) transferred to Tennessee State.
Who's new: Jalen Hurd, a five-star tailback out of Hendersonville, Tenn., enrolled in January.
Coming soon: Derrell Scott, a four-star tailback out of North Carolina, and Treyvon Paulk, who tore his ACL in the fourth game of his senior season in September, will arrive this summer.
IN THE MIX
After three years playing the second fiddle in Tennessee's backfield to Tauren Poole (2011) and Neal (2012 and 2013), Lane enters his final spring practice as the Vols' top returning rusher, though he's been slowed by minor, nagging injuries in each of his first three years and missed part of last spring due to suspension. Lane was unable to take over as Tennessee's primary ball carrier despite outperforming Neal during stretches last season, and now he'll have to fend off some incoming talent, starting with Hurd, who could vulture his opportunities. Pickett, who ran 69 times for 142 yards and three touchdowns at Maryland in 2012 and led the Terrapins in kick-return yardage in 2011, had put himself in position to be the Vols' third option last August when his waiver for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA.
ONE TO WATCH
It's a pretty easy call here. The Vols made their first and biggest recruiting splash last March when Hurd, the top-ranked player in the state who was courted by everyone, called Jones in the middle of a spring practice and committed to Tennessee just a couple of months after stating publicly he had no relationship with the Vols' previous staff. Asked this week if he was surprised by Hurd's early pledge, Jones joked, "No, I was relieved." If the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Hurd can reach the level he was at during a record-setting 11th-grade season, Jones and the Vols will be more than relieved. There will be an adjustment for Hurd, a jumbo running back, in terms of playing lower and learning the offense, and he's less than a year removed from shoulder surgery. Still, as one of the two five-star recruits who joined the Vols in January, Hurd will attract plenty of attention right away.
Is there a big-play threat in Tennessee's backfield? In 2013, with an offensive line with a couple of future NFL players, the Vols managed 69 rushing attempts of 10-plus yards, the 11th-most in the SEC. Of Tennessee's 14 runs of 20-plus yards, three were from quarterback Josh Dobbs and another came from receiver Pig Howard. Since Montario Hardesty recorded the fourth-best single-season rushing yardage total (1,345) in program history to earn All-SEC honors in 2009, the Vols have lacked a true game-breaking back. Poole and Neal registered 1,000-yard seasons, but they weren't the elite runners who recently have rolled through the backfields at Alabama, Georgia and LSU. Can Lane, who's had a solid offseason, or Hurd, who ran for a state high school record 3,357 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns as a junior, give the Vols the pop they've not had at the position?
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 ...