Butch Jones expects more from Tennessee's tailbacks

photo UT's Rajion Neal carries in the game against Akron Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

KNOXVILLE - Tailback Rajion Neal sprinted around the left end for a first down on the first play of 11-on-11 work in Tennessee's second spring scrimmage on Saturday.

Most of the runs that followed didn't end as well for the Volunteers' running backs.

Tennessee's offense collectively struggled with ineffectiveness and inefficiency on Saturday, and though an effective running game requires a combined effort, new Vols coach Butch Jones expressed some frustration in his tailbacks.

"We missed a couple of big-time cuts," he said after the scrimmage. "They were a minus-2-yard gain, and when you run the football, you can't have negative-yardage plays. They should have been eight- to 10-yard plays if we keep our eyes up.

"Those are teaching moments. I know our running backs are extremely prideful. We challenge them, and they'll come back."

The only other highlight from a Tennessee tailback came from Alden Hill. The 6-foot-2, 217-pound redshirt freshman burst through the middle of the second-team defense and gained about 35 yards when the Vols simulated a situation where the offense was backed up on their 2-yard line. He and Marlin Lane both scored touchdowns on short plunges.

During one of the simulated overtime situations when Neal ran hesitantly and missed a open hole, Jones asked for another running back over the microphone he carries with him during practice and inserted Lane, who gave some credit to Tennessee's defensive.

"I feel like we read it pretty good," said the rising junior. "The defense was so ready today. They were shooting every gap and hitting every hole, so as we read it and went to the other read, they were still sitting there and we had to get what we can."

Neal and Lane combined for 1,366 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season behind a stout offensive line. Though they'll have similarly a talented and experienced offensive front paving the way for them come the fall, Tennessee's tailbacks won't have the luxury of the passing-game talent it had around them in 2012. With Tom Smith missing the past week of practice, Hill appears to be solidifying the spot as the backfield's third option.

Given the inexperience and youth at quarterback and receiver, the Vols may have to rely more on their tailbacks, particularly Neal and Lane.

"Both of those guys do have athletic ability," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said after a practice last week. "Both of them are really good receivers out of the backfield. Good-framed kids, and we've just got to get better bending and finishing our runs.

"It's not a secret. Those are the knocks that I heard when I came here, those are the knocks that we've had individual conversations with them and they know it. That's what they're trying to improve is being better finishers at the end of their runs."

Following Saturday's display, Jones will want his backs to add "trusting your eyes and letting your instincts take over" to the to-do list.

"Basically I've been working on going out there and doing the little things right and making our group look more physical," Lane said. "For me to do that, I have to learn everything that they're asking with play-calling and learning the reads with the new offense. I'm working on that a lot."

Gillespie said he's not using any previous film or outside voices to form his opinion and evaluate his running backs, and that is by design.

"I've heard you guys give me what you think about these guys and other people in the building want to give me their opinions -- that doesn't matter to me, to be honest with you," he said. "I just want to see what these guys can do from here on out. It's not fair for them to judge me on some mistakes I've made in the past, is it?

"All they have to go by is me and what I present to them every day since March when I got here, so I think it's only fair for those guys to be able to prove who they are, prove that they've changed and prove that they're willing to change, and that'll carry over to the offseason, once we get to know each other more and trust each other more. Hopefully by the time fall camp starts, these guys will be able to show me, show you guys and show everybody that they're a bunch of guys that want to get better."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

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