STARKVILLE, Miss. - Tennessee's coaches have said since spring practice they've felt good about all three of their top tailbacks.
Saturday night tested those words.
Starter Rajion Neal (ankle) and second tailback Marlin Lane (thigh) both were banged up by the third quarter of Tennessee's 41-31 loss at 19th-ranked Mississippi State, leaving the diminutive Devrin Young and two freshmen to carry the Volunteers' improved ground game.
"It never helps when you have two running backs out," quarterback Tyler Bray said. "Devrin and Que Watson stepped in and did a great job. We couldn't have asked them to do anything better."
While the new guys had some early success, Young's fumble proved to be costly. The 5-foot-8, 175-pounder from Knoxville ran for 36 yards on eight carries, all within the tackles, as Tennessee outscored Mississippi State 10-0 in the third quarter. The sophomore was in the middle of another nice run when Bulldogs All-Southeastern Conference cornerback Johnthan Banks ripped the ball loose and recovered at the Vols' 30-yard line.
Three plays later, Mississippi State was in the end zone and back up by 10, and the rowdy, capacity crowd began loudly clanging their beloved cowbells.
"I started getting ready once Lane went down," Young said. "I knew Ra was going to need a break here and there. When Ra went down, it was pretty obvious what was about to happen. Obviously I've got some room for improvement."
Asked to evaluate his performance, Young somberly replied, "I don't really know right now, to tell you the truth."
Speedy freshman Quenshaun Watson darted 14 yards on one play, and freshman receiver Alton "Pig" Howard showed his speed and shiftiness on four plays out of the wildcat package that gained 30 yards. Young got the carries on the drive following his fumble.
Lane left the game in the first half after just two carries in the first half for undisclosed reason, and Neal hurt his left leg on Tennessee's opening possession of the second half.
McNeil starts at safety
Safety LaDarrell McNeil became the first freshman to start a game for Tennessee this season. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder from Texas, a four-star prospect who was the Vols' highest-rated high school signee, replaced Brent Brewer in the starting lineup. Brewer's stint as starter in place of the injured Brian Randolph last just two games.
Tennessee started at least two true freshmen in 11 of 12 games and three or more first-year players in eight of 12 games last season.
Four days removed from hip surgery, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley was back with his team, though the Vols' third-year head man had to coach from the coaches' booth at press-box level. Dooley was not on the field with his team during pregame warmups and instead watched his team prepare on the far half of the field standing on his crutches in the doorway of the building where the locker rooms are located in one end zone.
Dooley still wore his usual orange pants, though.
The Vols had over-the-headset sideline liaisons for Dooley in the box: defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri for the defense and receivers coach Darin Hinshaw for the offense. Dooley sat with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and Conklin, the usual coaches in the booth.
The 44-year-old coach was up and hollering at one point during the first half after the Vols burned their first timeout lining up to block a field goal.
"It was hard," he said. "I really struggled the first half. It ended up being OK, but it was, it's just hard. I'm not being down there managing the game and all the situations, but that didn't really have an impact on the outcome."
Linebacker Jacques Smith registered his first sack of the season in the first quarter. It was the junior from Ooltewah's third career sack and first since the Ole Miss game in 2010. Smith also made a couple of other crunching hits on Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell.
Defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore got to Russell in the third quarter for the Vols' second sack of the game and only the fifth allowed this season by MSU, which entered the game tied with Tennessee for fewest allowed in the SEC.
California TE picks Vols
Long before the game kicked off, the Volss landed a commitment from a player at a position of need.
Chauntez Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound tight end from Inglewood High School in California, pledged to the Vols' coaching staff. The three-star prospect held scholarship offers from Arizona and Oregon State, among others. He is Tennessee's 18th commitment for the 2013 class.
The Vols will lose seniors Mychal Rivera and Ben Bartholomew after this season, and the offseason dismissal of sophomore Cameron Clear, who's now at Arizona Western College and took an official visit to Ole Miss this weekend, further strained Tennessee's depth at the position.
Sophomore Brendan Downs and freshman Justin Meredith, who's been a nonfactor with a lingering hamstring injury since enrolling early in January, are the only two returning players at the position, though freshman Jason Croom, who's already at more than 230 pounds, wrote on his Twitter account this past week that he was moving to tight end for spring practice once he recovers from shoulder surgery.
Bray declared that his knee was 'fine' to open his postgame interview. The quarterback was twisted up on a tackle when he scrambled in the third quarter. ... Cornerback Justin Coleman (head) left the game on Mississippi State's final drive. ... Tennessee's captains for Saturday night's game were Neal, nose tackle Daniel McCullers, right tackle Ja'Wuan James and defensive end Marlon Walls. ... Eric Gordon started as Tennessee's nickelback. The fourth-year junior split first-team reps with walk-on JaRon Toney in practice this week. It was Gordon's fourth start this season. ... Linebacker Curt Maggitt (turf toe) started and left the game after making a hit on Russell on the game's second play, but he returned on the next offensive possession. Dooley said after the game that Maggitt is "struggling." ... Cordarrelle Patterson's 98-yard kickoff return in the second quarter was Tennessee's first on a conventional kickoff since Mark Jones took one back 82 yards against Alabama in 2002.