Tailback tandem working for Tennessee Vols

Tailback tandem working for Tennessee Vols

September 11th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee running back Rajion Neal (20) gets chased around the end by Austin Peay safety Steven Rich (20) and linebacker Montrieze Lillard (38).

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

Tennessee running back Marlin Lane (15) rushes past Western Kentucky defensive back Jonathan Dowling (1).

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- For James Stone and his fellow Tennessee offensive linemen, it doesn't matter whether it's Rajion Neal or Marlin Lane lining up behind them at tailback.

Most of the time, the veteran front five don't even know for which one they're blocking.

Through the season's first two games, Neal and Lane have formed a productive platoon, and Tennessee certainly will need both to continue operating at their current 6.6-yard-per-carry clip when the Vols visit second-ranked Oregon on Saturday.

"I don't really feel like there's a dropoff, man," Stone said following Tuesday afternoon's practice. "I think the O-line, through camp, we developed a lot of confidence in both guys. A lot of times we don't even know which one is in until after we see them get past the line of scrimmage."

Tennessee's timeshare at tailback is a break from what first-year coach Butch Jones and his offensive staff used at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats typically relied on one workhorse back for most of the carries.

In 2010, Isaiah Pead ran the ball 157 times, more than 120 times more than the next tailback. He ran it a whopping 237 times in 2011 and had nine games in which he got at least 17 carries, and the next highest carry total by a tailback was George Winn's 40. During both of those seasons, quarterback Zach Collaros was Cincinnati's second-leading rusher in number of carries.

When he took over last season for Pead, who ran for 1,029 yards in 2010 and 1,259 in 2011, Winn ran the ball 243 times, and Ralph David Abernathy, a dimunitive dynamo who also played receiver and returned kickoffs, was Cincinnati's second-leader rusher in carries with 69.

At Central Michigan from 2007 to 2009, quarterback Dan Lefevour led Jones' offense in carries, but the distribution of carries among running backs was more even than it was at Cincinnati.

"I think in today's world of college football," Jones said Monday, "and the durability aspect and the pounding that the running backs take -- not only are they getting hit on every snap when they run the football, but they're involved in pass protection, they're out on the perimeter -- you need more than one running back.

"Really, in a perfect world, in our offense, we need three to four running backs."

These Vols have two reliable options in Neal and Lane, and through two games Neal has carried the ball 31 times to Lane's 22.

In 2012, Neal ran it 156 times, while Lane carried it 120 times, and neither tailback has cared too much about who starts or who gets the most carries.

"Marlin and Rajion right now are really complementing each other," Jones said. "The great thing is they're feeding off of each other and they're encouraging each other, so we like to think of it as a one-one punch.

"Moving forward with our football team, we have to have the ability to recruit a number of top quality running backs because we want to use them like we do in our offense. We want to use three or four, and sometimes we've used up to five running backs if we're able to."

Neal ran for 141 yards and a touchdown on his 16 carries in the opener against Austin Peay and added three touchdowns and 74 yards on 15 carries against Western Kentucky.

Lane actually got one more carry than Neal against the Hilltoppers and, as he did six times in 2012, led Tennessee with 97 rushing yards.

"I feel like they definitely help us a lot," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "They make us right when we're wrong, and I feel like they feed off each other. Marlin's coming in and busting a couple runs, and Rai will come in and bust a couple runs, and they always argue about who's going to finish it off with a touchdown.

"I'm proud of those two guys, and we want to continue to get them yards."

After the opener, Jones and running backs coach Robert Gillespie made straight-ahead running a point of emphasis for Neal and Lane, who both have shown a tendency in their careers to bounce runs to the outside.

"I saw them both make conscious efforts to do that against Western Kentucky," Stone said. "When you go back, and we were watching the film, you saw both of those guys, in situations where they might have bounced it outside against Austin Peay, stuck it north and south and got positive yardage.

"That's always good for your offensive line when you see your running back trying to hit it vertical."

Lane ripped off runs of 19 and 20 yards against the Hilltoppers, and one of those runs he ran through an attempted tackle by safety Jonathan Dowling, a transfer from Florida.

"That energizes the offensive line, that energizes the whole offense, because that let's you know your running back is laying it on the line for your team, and it gives you that much more incentive to go all out the next play and each play after that," Stone said.

James described the dynamic between Neal and Lane as a "healthy competition," and the Vols will need to rely on both to make plays as the schedule increases in difficulty.

"They all want to score, they both want to get yards and they both want to get 1,000 yards this year," he said.

"We want to open up lanes for whoever's back there."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.