You can make a case that Tennessee’s most dangerous running back of 2012 was a wide receiver (Cordarrelle Patterson) and its most dependable running back was a linebacker (A.J. Johnson).
Without even knowing the running back assignments last fall, Patterson excelled as a ball-carrier on occasional end-arounds and a few late-season deployments at tailback. He averaged 12.3 yard per carry and parlayed three of his 25 rushes into touchdowns, including a team-best 67-yarder against North Carolina State.
Without even knowing the offensive plays, Johnson excelled as a short-yardage specialist. Utilized as a wildcat tailback almost exclusively in fourth-and-one and goal-line situations, he converted every time but one. That’s why six of his 12 carries produced touchdowns, despite a mere 1.8 yards-per-carry average.
Patterson is now in the NFL and Johnson is busy becoming the cornerstone of the Vol defense. Moreover, Devrin Young is now a slot receiver and 2013 signee Jabo Lee is not going to enroll. Scholarship junior Tom Smith is still around but he didn’t get a carry in 2013 or even in the Orange & White Game. Thus, it appears the rushing chores in 2013 will be handled almost exclusively by the trio of senior Rajion Neal, junior Marlin Lane and redshirt freshman Alden Hill.
The obvious question: What will be the pecking order?
Neal (5-feet-11, 211 pounds) has 4.36 speed but has not shown the vision or tackle-breaking ability to fully exploit it. He rushed for a team-best 708 yards last fall but averaged a pedestrian 4.5 yards per carry with a long run of 29 yards. His value is enhanced, however, by his receiving ability. He averaged 7.8 yards per catch last fall and parlayed four of his 19 receptions into touchdowns.
Lane (5-feet-11, 205 pounds) also showed a knack for going to the turf on first contact last fall, scoring just two TDs despite averaging 5.5 yards per carry en route to 658 net rushing yards. He is fresh from head coach Butch Jones’ doghouse after spending most of April, May and June suspended from the team for academic issues. Like Neal, Lane is a good pass receiver. He averaged 7.9 yards per catch on 29 receptions last season but did not produce a touchdown on any of them.
Hill (6-feet-1, 219 pounds) is a power runner who should be able to fill the short-yardage role that A.J. Johnson handled last fall. Hill has some wiggle for a big guy, which he showed in rushing for 101 yards on just 18 carries in the Orange & White Game. With a better grasp of the offense, he should push Neal and Lane for carries this fall.
Neal and Lane took a lot of criticism last fall, and much of it was warranted. Most of their yardage came off the blocking of Tennessee’s offensive line; the tailbacks got very little on their own. That’s why the Big Orange ground attack may not be significantly improved this fall, despite a senior-laden blocking front.
That’s also why Vol fans are eagerly waiting for heralded Class of 2014 commitment Jalen Hurd to show up at Neyland Stadium in an Orange jersey.