KNOXVILLE - One stat looks like what a typical freshman might have. Two other numbers state a different case.
The first six games of tailback Marlin Lane's University of Tennessee football career have brought some ups and downs, but the most important thing the 6-foot, 205-pounder has done is help stabilize the backfield rotation.
"He's run better and better -- especially the last two games, I think he has," Volunteers coach Derek Dooley said after Tuesday morning's practice. "He showed some good ability in the early games. He's running a little bit better. He's still not near what he's capable of doing.
"A lot of technical issues. Sometimes [he] plays too high; sometimes guesses a little bit. But he's getting better and better."
Lane has shown flashes of the talent that made most recruiting services rate him as a four-star prospect coming out of Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla. He burst through UT's offensive line for an 18-yard run on his first collegiate carry against Montana and scampered for 18 yards on a draw play in the first quarter of last week's loss to LSU.
His 43-yard game against the top-ranked Tigers set a career high, though he had 24 yards on four carries in the game's meaningless final moments. The performance helped push his yards-per-carry average to 3.2, but it was barely over 2 entering the game. Lane had just 17 yards on 12 carries in Southeastern Conference losses to Florida and Georgia, and he'll see his toughest defense yet at No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night.
"Everybody's fast. It's not just that one or two guys on defense," Lane said of the transition from high school to college during his Tuesday media debut. "[There's] a lot of technique you've got to learn at running back rather than just getting the ball and running. I don't get down on myself because I know it's the next level and I'm just a freshman. I just go day by day and work harder."
The key for doing that is not hesitating, which is something Lane said Dooley harps on every day.
"What slows me down is trying to read everything and not just [going]," he said. "[I'm] just learning. I'm not down on myself. I can do it."
Lane has shown a knack for the end zone and an ability to be a weapon out of the backfield catching passes. His four touchdowns (two rushing, two receiving) are second among UT's skill players, and his 141 receiving yards on 12 receptions are fourth highest on the team, behind only receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter and tight end Mychal Rivera.
Against Georgia, Lane caught six passes for 84 yards, which demonstrated his run-after-catch skills.
"I saw us as freshmen last year playing a lot. A lot of us weren't that mature," said right tackle Ju'Wuan James. "But he is, and he comes to work every day and tries to focus and get better. He's definitely one of the advanced freshmen. He's quick, and he knows how to get open and he knows how to run in the open field."
With Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray, two of UT's main offensive weapons, sidelined by injuries, Lane figures to have his touches increase. He's averaging more than 5 yards on roughly nine touches per game, and as the wear and tear of the season builds on starting tailback Tauren Poole, Lane must avoid the figurative freshman wall and continue his improvement.
"It's hard on them," Dooley said. "He's a guy, especially, where you really see it are the guys who have been doing it since the beginning of [training] camp. It starts taking its toll.
"It's hard -- learning to and just embracing that hey, that's part of it. Most guys when they come out of high school, they expect to feel great all the time. It doesn't happen like that."
James, who enrolled for spring practice last year and immediately worked his way into the starting lineup, knows the feeling well. But he has yet to see it from Lane or any of UT's other significant 2011 freshman contributors.
"It's very difficult," he said. "At first you're like, 'Wow, I'm out here playing with all these grown men.' Then right about this time you hit that wall like you're starting to feel a little tired and stuff might not be going your way.
"I haven't really seen it. I feel like they came in better than we came in. I hit that freshman wall last year, but they just keep working."