Breakout players on offense

Rajion Neal

InsideTennessee provides the finest coverage available on Vol football. Check out this story on some unsung players who could play key roles in 2013.

HOOVER, Ala. — Tennessee football fans are worried about the lack of playmakers on offense. Tennessee players believe those worries are unfounded. At least, that's what two seniors attending Wednesday's session of SEC Media Days believe.

Offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James and defensive end Jacques Smith suggest the Vol roster features several weapons that are merely waiting to be unsheathed.

Running backs Rajion Neal (708 yards) and Marlin Lane (658) produced pedestrian seasons in 2012. Moreover, Lane is fresh from a three-month disciplinary suspension. Smith thinks both show breakout potential for 2013, however.

"Marlin Lane has been working really hard," Smith said. "I know there was some (concern) over him throughout the spring but he has come back focused and ready to go. He's been working really hard for us, and I'm glad to have him back."

Not to be outdone, Neal apparently has stepped up his efforts, as well.

"Rajion Neal has been leading the running back corps and has been a great leader this offseason," Smith said. "I'm so proud of him, and I can't wait till he starts running some 100-yarders on some people. He's looking faster and stronger. Golly, the guy's going to be able to do everything this season."

James believes Tennessee's much-maligned wideout corps is going to be better than advertised, as well. When asked to pinpoint some breakout candidates on offense, he replied: "Definitely Devrin Young. His whole mindset has changed. I don't know if it's because a window of opportunity opened — being moved to receiver — but you could see him mature from January to now. It looks promising that he will have a great year."

Young, a 5-foot-8, 172-pound junior, is learning to play slot receiver in 2013 after averaging just 1.8 yards per carry on 10 rushes as a tailback in 2012. His chief competition for the slot-receiver job is another mighty-mite, 5-foot-8, 185-pound sophomore Alton Howard. Also known as "Pig," he was mentioned by both James and Smith as a breakout candidate.

"Pig has really been locking in and focusing," Smith said. "Him, Jason Croom, Devrin Young and Vincent Dallas have been working really, really hard to improve where we might be struggling … or where people think we might be struggling."

Based on the loss of first-round NFL Draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson, second-round pick Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers – three guys who combined for 151 catches, 2,352 receiving yards and 21 receiving touchdowns last fall – most fans understandably expect little from a grossly inexperienced wideout corps in 2013. James believes the fact all of the jobs are now wide open is motivating the little-used 2012 backups.

"Coach Jones said in the beginning, ‘Justin and CP and those guys are gone, so we need you (young wideouts) to step up. There's no time to waste," James noted. "I guess that opened their eyes; they're working hard now."

Smith also expressed confidence in the unproven receivers.

"They're going to be fine," he said. "They're going to be quite fine. We've got a lot of raw talent."

Both Vol seniors also mentioned Croom, a 6-foot-5, 232-pounder who redshirted in 2012 due to injury. One senior also mentioned a mid-term freshman who has turned some heads since recovering from a hamstring pull that hampered him in spring practice.

"The new guy, Paul Harris … just from the spring I've seen him change," James said.

Wideout Drae Bowles, who redshirted as a freshman in 2012, also earned praise from one of his veteran teammates.

"Drae Bowles hasn't gotten his feet wet (in a game)," Smith said, "but he's a great possession receiver. He's made a lot of catches in 7-on-7s this offseason and done a lot of great things."

Tennessee's young receivers were somewhat disappointing in the spring but they apparently have grown up a lot – mentally and physically – since then.

"As a freshman you can be a little bit immature," James said. "But I feel like they're focused. They're focused on trying to win. All they're talking about is getting us seniors some wins, so we can go out proud."

Although he sees plenty of potential in the young wideouts, James has been around long enough to know that potential doesn't always result in production.

"I feel like they can be a lot better than the respect people are giving them," he said. "But they've got to go out there and prove it. I can be saying all of this – saying how good they're working – but when those lights come on they've got to go out there and perform."

Have a listen at more of what James said to media at The Wynfrey in the video below: Recommended Stories