KNOXVILLE - Friday night was a measure of redemption for Tennessee tailback Marlin Lane.
The Volunteers' leading returning rusher didn't make the two-deep chart for the season opener, but that didn't keep the sophomore from helping his team.
Lane led Tennessee with 75 yards on nine carries in the Vols' 35-21 win against North Carolina State in Atlanta.
"It was great," Lane, dressed in a green suit, said after the game. "I knew once they called my name to come out and do the two-minute [drive], I just had a mindset to come out and just play physical and help my team in any kind of way. It worked."
Though not of his own doing, Lane finished behind Rajion Neal and Devrin Young in Tennessee's backfield pecking order. Neal's blend of speed and explosiveness and his consistency helped him win the job, and Young's ability to turn a short gain in to a big play earned him the top backup spot. Lane by no means had a poor preseason, and coaches said the other two backs simply were slightly better.
After finishing last season with 280 rushing yards, 160 receiving yards and four touchdowns, Lane had what he called a "setback" this summer with a wrist injury. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Florida native was in the cast for most of the summer workout program. He had the cast removed and pins taken out a month ago.
"I give Marlin a lot of credit," coach Derek Dooley said. "He comes into this game third team, and it's easy for him to get frustrated and down. He was our second-team guy last year, had a lot of aspirations this year, but it just shows when your attitude's right, you don't get frustrated and you stay with it, good things happen. That's what he did, and he was a big difference for us this game."
Lane got his first carry in the second quarter after N.C. State scored to trim Tennessee's lead to 22-14. He ran for 8 yards and 6 yards on the possession's first two plays and ran for another first down with a 4-yard gain. Though the drive ended in quarterback Tyler Bray's fumble at the goal line, Lane showed more of a downhill running style.
Though he got 22 carries, Neal finished with just 53 yards. Eight of the junior's carries either lost yardage or were stopped for no gain. Running out of the "pistol" formation, Neal showed a tendency to run parallel to the line of scrimmage trying to bounce the play outside, and though sometimes his hesitancy set up a block or two, the Wolfpack closed in quickly on most of them.
"I was real disappointed in a couple of those runs, and he knew to stick it up in the middle," Dooley said. "He didn't trust it, and they were doing a good job of ripping us on the perimeter. The runs were designed to stay inside. He made some good runs, but then he kind of went back to his ways of trying to bounce it out in space.
"He's done it on occasion, but he's been pretty consistent in not doing it. He just had a couple of runs where he bounced it, especially in four-minute. We lost 5 yards when we had something right up the middle."
Neal did show a good burst on an 8-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Lane's 42-yard burst up the middle on Tennessee's next possession set up a short field goal that made it a three-possession game.
The Vols finished with 191 rushing yards - 101 more than last season's per-game average - but receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had 67 yards on his first-quarter touchdown run.
Dooley said the offensive line wasn't consistent in opening up holes, but he also credited N.C. State's underrated defensive front.
"Those [offensive linemen] have been working hard, and it showed," Neal said. "We faced a good run defense out there today. Those guys opened up some lanes, and we've got to do a better job of taking what they give us."
Dooley said the Vols "did a couple of little things different" with the run game in the second half that were more effective.
"I think that's where our guys have got to understand that tempo is going to wear them down if we believe in it," the coach said. "We started popping some runs a little bit better in the second half."
Though he said he wasn't upset or surprised he didn't win the starting job, Lane is trying to make the most of the carries he does get.
"I had some ups and downs in the summer," he said. "Hopefully we're going to up it each week. We're going to work hard every day at practice to do that, because we're just going to send a statement out."
Lane did that Friday night.
"It's a great lesson for all players because it's easy to get really self-absorbed and complain that things aren't going your way, but here he is," Dooley said. "I wouldn't have predicted he'd been our leading rusher before the game. I wouldn't have, but he was.
"That shows a lot about his character, and I'm proud of him. Then you say, 'Well, why was he third-team?' Good question."