The Backfield: No Where To Go But Up
The Vols might have to take a somewhat backfield-by-committee approach, looking to improve on last season’s dismal performance (90 yards per game, 2.8 yards per carry, ranked 116th in the nation). Gone is Tauren Poole who had earned to be the Vol workhorse in 2010, achieving 3rd Team All-SEC honors even though he ran behind a freshmen offensive line, but who regressed dramatically last season to the point where everybody was scratching their head while muttering to themselves, “Is it the line, or the running backs? Is it the line, or the running backs?…”
Or perhaps it was because there was no position coach for the running backs.
Seeing how far the running game regressed in one season while running behind essentially the same line as the previous year, Derek Dooley made the decision to join most of his coaching peers and hire a RB coach. Enter former Tennessee running back Jay Graham who was coaching last year for Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks.
Junior Rajion Neal (#20) could be viewed as a more versatile offensive weapon because although he has experience running the ball, Neal finished the 2011 season as a receiver, a remedy for his fumbleitis. But he will be the 2012 starting tailback. Questions of observers are (1) can he hang onto the ball? and (2) can he take a hit? But reports are that he has had an exceptional camp. And one thing is for sure – if he can break the line with the ball intact, it is awfully hard to catch him. Added to that is his physical strength: his performances in the weight room are becoming legendary.
Sophomore Devrin Young (#19) has great movement skills on the go along with near track speed, which equals the opportunity of being a second-string tailback along with serving as the main return man – punts and kickoffs. One way to get Young as a more dangerous offensive weapon might be as a pass-receiving back. Sophomore Marlin Lane (#15) has loads of talent, and it will be interesting to see if Lane can challenge Neal for touches.
Sophomore Tom Smith (#29) is a longshot to get any meaningful playing time. Freshman Alden Hill (#30) has seen limited practice time due to illness. And Sophomore Deanthonie Summerhill (#24) is a speed merchant, enough to give him a jersey with a number on it but probably not much playing time for a while. Junior Reggie Juin (#22) is a squad member, part of the Vols scout team, and better known as a sprinter on Tennessee’s track team and recipient of the 2011 Vol Lifer of the Year. Freshman Quenshaun Watson (#25) is also listed on the roster.
Davante Bourque, one of the highest rated freshmen running backs in the country (primarily LSU and Texas A&M), is quitting football at Tennessee and going to Pearl River Community College (MS). Word has it that he was the subject of a massive hit (a clothesline) by nose guard Daniel McCullers (“Can’t Run DMC”) during an August practice. This means he probably had an awakening of sorts to the fact that he wasn’t ready for this level yet. But circulating stories speculate that he felt he shouldn’t be allowed to receive such a physical hit. His father came out and talked about “broken promises.”
Senior Ben Bartholomew (#39) fits the mould at fullback now that former FB Channing Fugate appears to be well-suited to provide some depth on the other side of the ball as a linebacker. However with the train-wreck of injuries at the tight end position, Bartholomew may also find playing time at TE. Moving Fugate back to his original position in the backfield might make sense, except for the fact that he has been impressive during fall camp as a linebacker. Freshman Justin King (#38) may get playing time at both FB and LB.
Sophomores Austin Bolen (#45), Austin Taylor (#48), and Brendan Downs (#85), and freshman Ryeon Wedley (#48) are additional roster entries.
The Last Word
To put it simply and directly, the run game at Tennessee has nothing else to do but get better. And it has to for the Vols to make a significant dent in the win column, even with the embarrassment of riches of the Big Orange passing game. Perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised with an effective ground game and find the answers to the question, “Was it the offensive line, or the running backs?” Or does having a running backs coach really make a difference?