Sometimes the biggest obstacle in recovering from ACL surgery is mental, not physical. Case in point: Tennessee
running back Marlin Lane
Just one year removed from major knee surgery when he arrived at Tennessee last fall, Lane did little to justify his status as a four-star recruit. He averaged a nondescript 3.7 yards per carry en route to 280 yards. If you deduct a 45-yard run at Arkansas, Lane's other 74 attempts netted just 3.2 yards per carry.
Though touted as a difference-maker during his career at Mainland High in Daytona Beach, Lane appeared indecisive on his good days and downright tentative on his bad days.
Those characteristics were still evident in March. Gaining a mere eight yards on seven carries, the Lane Train clearly got left at the station in Tennessee's first spring scrimmage. He got back on track and ran full throttle thereafter, however, suggesting he may be the answer to the Vols' recent run-game woes.
Lane bounced back from his woeful Scrimmage 1 performance to gain 71 yards on 12 carries in Scrimmage 2. He then capped his spring rally by rushing nine times for 106 yards in the Orange & White Game, finally showing some vision and explosiveness. Moreover, Lane caught three passes for 32 yards, indicating he can be effective as a receiver out of the backfield.
Given how underwhelming his freshman season had been, Lane needed a productive spring to prove himself. When he all but disappeared in the opening scrimmage, fans began to doubt whether he'd ever live up to his high school hype. Heck, even he began to doubt whether he'd ever live up to his hype.
"I just thought that I needed to stay focused and run more physical," he said.
Lane used his 6-foot, 205-pound frame to run much more physically over the last week of spring practice. He broke a 22-yard run in the second scrimmage, then popped a 39-yard touchdown run in the O&W Game.
Like many football players coming off ACL injuries, Lane simply needed sufficient time to realize that his surgically repaired knee could hold up under the rigors of full-scale competition. Mission accomplished.
"I feel a whole lot different," he said. "I feel I can play to my ability now without worrying 'Is my knee going to give out on me?' I feel 100 percent.... I can tell that I'm moving a lot faster."
Now that Lane has regained his cutting ability and his confidence, he projects as Tennessee's best bet for a breakout performer at running back in 2012. Junior Rajion Neal has great speed but has been somewhat fumble prone. Devrin Young has great open-field ability but is more of a change-of-pace back at 5 feet 8 and 171 pounds.
If Tennessee is to improve significantly on last season's 5-7 record, the Vols must improve significantly on last season's average of 90.1 rushing yards per game.
If Marlin Lane produces a breakout year, both goals are in reach.
To hear Lane talk about his progress during spring drills in March, click play on the video below:
This is the second in a series of articles examining Tennessee football players who appear poised for "breakout" seasons in 2012. This one focuses on the running back position.