KNOXVILLE - Tennessee may have some big-play ability in its football backfield after all.
The Volunteers' wide receivers have a hand in that as well.
Tailbacks Rajion Neal and Devrin Young stood out during UT's first closed spring scrimmage Friday afternoon at Neyland Stadium, and the Vols receivers helped pave the way with some of their blocking on the perimeter.
"They're doing so much better on the perimeter. All of them," coach Derek Dooley said after his team completed the 134-play scrimmage. "Those guys [Neal and Young], you just have to find ways to create a little air for them, because when there's some air they can go."
Neal, who's back exclusively at tailback after playing mostly receiver last season, had 100 yards on 15 carries with an 11-yard reception. Young, the rising sophomore who doubles as the Vols' kick returner, had 60 yards on eight carries with a 5-yard touchdown in addition to a 35-yard catch. Marlin Lane added a touchdown run from a yard out.
"The guys that showed some explosive plays, Devrin and Rajion, did a really nice job," Dooley said. "I think Devrin has proven he can get out there and generate some explosion. ... Rajion showed some good promise."
The Vols had just six runs of 20 yards or more all of last season, but both Neal and Young broke plays of such distance Friday. Young's biggest concern is his size (5-foot-8 and 171 pounds), and Neal is struggling to run with confidence and physical aggressiveness while battling ball-security issues.
What both players clearly have is speed. Neither was really used as a traditional tailback last season, when the Vols tried to get one or the other in space with reverses, end-arounds or even shovel passes. Young showed his explosiveness by averaging 23.3 yards per kickoff return in just nine games. Neal's speed prompted his move to receiver as UT tried to find a way to get him on the field.
"That really kind of makes it easy when you've got guys with speed," receiver Da'Rick Rogers said. "Rajion and Devrin could get out to the edge, so your blocks aren't really that hard. You've just got to set the edge and let them go."
UT's wideouts didn't do that enough last season. Though the offensive line and tailbacks took most of the heat for finishing 116th nationally in rushing last season, the coaching staff insisted the receivers didn't block well enough on the perimeter. Improving the ground game has been a heavy emphasis for the entire offensive, including the receivers, and so far it's yielded some results.
"That's been one of the biggest things," said Rogers, the Vols' leading receiver last season. "As you know, last year our run game really wasn't as strong as it could have been. We feel like the perimeter could really help that out, so that's really what we've been stressing all spring."
The emphasis was evident in Friday's scrimmage. UT's five scholarship tailbacks combined for 45 carries, while quarterback Tyler Bray threw 32 passes. The rising junior completed 13 of his throws for 142 yards and a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Mychal Rivera. Neither Rogers nor Justin Hunter, who was held out of the scrimmage, caught a pass.
"I think [offensive coordinator Jim] Chaney was really trying to work the run game today, so the defense probably thought they shut us down," Rogers said. "We ran all run plays, through bad looks and good looks. I just think we did pretty good with the run game.
"We didn't throw the ball as much as we usually do. The receivers were down with Justin not scrimmaging today, so everybody had to put in and do a lot blocking. I feel like we did a pretty good job blocking on the perimeter."
That'll need to become a theme if the Vols want to maximize their big-play potential.