KNOXVILLE - The University of Tennessee is a special place for Jay Graham.
He was one of the football program's best running backs more than 15 years ago and joined the Volunteers' coaching staff 10 months ago.
Tennessee's running backs coach will return to another special place this weekend when the Vols visit 17th-ranked South Carolina, where Graham spent the past three seasons in the same position.
"I've thought about it," he said Wednesday. "It's a really good staff over there, a good group of guys that I still keep in contact with. It'll be good to see them pregame, but once the game starts, it goes back to business."
Plucking Graham from a division rival was a good move for Tennessee. The tailbacks easily are one unit that has improved from a year ago, when the Vols finished last in the Southeastern Conference in rushing and had an ugly yards-per-carry average. This season, Tennessee runners are hitting holes, breaking tackles, falling forward for extra yardage and securing the football.
Rajion Neal led the SEC in carries and averaged 4.5 yards per run before injuring his ankle against Mississippi State. Marlin Lane totaled 103 yards of offense on 20 touches against Alabama, and Devrin Young ran for 68 yards on 13 carries with Neal and Lane sidelined against MSU. Freshman Quenshaun Watson has shown some flashes in limited chances.
At South Carolina, Graham honed and demonstrated his abilities as a coach and a recruiter. He was instrumental in landing Marcus Lattimore, one of the nation's top tailbacks, in 2010. When Lattimore tore ligaments in his knee midway through last season, unheralded freshman Brandon Wilds, who began the season fifth on the depth chart, ran for more than 100 yards three times in five games.
"It helped me out a lot," Graham said of his time in Columbia. "The opportunity to be around one of the best coaches in college football, Coach [Steve] Spurrier, it was big for me and my career."
Graham said Spurrier's way of interacting with players and developing game plans greatly influenced him. When the former Duke, Florida and NFL coach hired Graham in 2009, Graham's resume consisted of one-year stints at UT-Chattanooga, San Diego, UT-Martin and Miami (Ohio). Yet Spurrier identified Graham's strengths and nabbed him.
"We interviewed two or three guys, and him being from North Carolina and Tennessee and the SEC made him a very logical choice," Spurrier said Wednesday on the SEC coaches' teleconference. "Jay did an excellent job. He wanted to go back to his alma mater, and I guess sometimes the lure of your alma mater is something a lot of guys feel strongly about.
"Jay is an excellent coach, and he does a super job."
Tennessee is 12th in the SEC in rush defense and has the fewest sacks in the league this season, and defensive line coach John Palermo wants to see more from his group.
"I think we've done a lot of good things," he said. "I don't think we're as consistent as we need to be, and I would tell you that's probably true of our defense, period. I don't know that we have one guy where you can say, 'Boy, he's playing great every week.'
"We have guys that have been playing good. But in order for us to be a really good defense, they've got to play better than good. They've got to play great inside, and they've got to create a lot of things inside to help the kids outside."
Junior college transfer Darrington Sentimore has four of the Vols' 10 sacks, including one in each of the past two games. No other player has more than one, and Maurice Couch is the only other pure defensive lineman with a sack. Palermo said moving Sentimore into a rush-end spot in its nickel package against Alabama paid off and suggested redshirt freshman Trevarris Saulsberry would continue to play more in a similar role following his five-tackle debut.
"Darrington does some good things in spots," Palermo said. "He's obviously got to play more consistently. The thing that I've got to do a good job of is Darrington's probably good for about 40 plays a game and that's it."
Tennessee coaches hinted leading up to the Akron game last month that Daniel Gray and Deion Bonner would get more early-game reps, but neither played until the outcome was decided.
The Vols finally appear ready to try out their freshman cornerbacks.
The two got some first-team reps during the open portion of Thursday morning's practice in place of usual starters Prentiss Waggner and Justin Coleman, who both had difficulties against Alabama.
"Those guys come to practice, and they come to work," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. "Very skilled guys, so it's not a matter of when to put them in the game, it's a matter of why to put in the game. Those guys have proven that they can come out here and get it done every day.
"Maybe they'll be able to see some time this week. Dan is fast -- we all know that -- and Deion's a bigger, heavier guy. They complement each other well, and the future's definitely bright at corner."
Though he's not 100 percent, Neal (ankle) moved better and did more in practice this week than last, but he still may not be effective enough to play. ... Alex Bullard is likely to start for Zach Fulton (ankle) at right guard. ... Young missed Thursday's practice to attend a funeral, per a Tennessee spokesman, but his status for Saturday is unchanged.