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Starting tailback job up for grabs at Tennessee

Associated Press Modified: September 4, 2012 at 2:33 pm •  Published: September 4, 2012
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Temptation still gets the best of Tennessee running back Rajion Neal every now and then.

No matter how often he reminds himself to stay between the tackles and take what's available, Neal can't help bouncing to the outside in search of a big play. The habit has jeopardized Neal's spot in Tennessee's starting lineup.

Neal even has a description for the voice in his head that tells him to run to the edge.

"That's a tailback's evil twin right there," Neal said.

Tennessee's rushing attack is trying to exorcise its own demons. The Volunteers averaged 2.8 yards per carry last season and gained 1,081 yards rushing, their lowest output since 1964. Tennessee rushed for 90.1 yards per game to rank 116th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

The Vols took a step forward Friday by running for 191 yards on 38 carries in a 35-21 victory over North Carolina State. Tennessee exceeded that total just once last season, a 199-yard effort in a 41-10 rout of Buffalo.

"I believe we showed a lot of people we've got that running game," sophomore running back Marlin Lane said, "but we've still got a whole lot to prove."

A closer look bears that out.

Of those 191 rushing yards, 109 came on two plays - a 67-yard touchdown by wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and a 42-yard carry by Lane. Neal gained only 53 yards on 22 attempts. The Vols scored just one touchdown on four trips to the red zone and struggled in short-yardage situations.

Tennessee responded by altering its depth chart.

Neal, a junior, now is listed as a co-starter along with Lane and sophomore Devrin Young. Lane rushed for 75 yards on nine carries Friday. Young had minus-2 yards on two attempts.

Tennessee wants to sort out its tailback rotation Saturday against Georgia State before Florida comes to Neyland Stadium on Sept. 15. Florida limited Tennessee to minus-9 rushing yards last year in a 33-23 victory over the Vols.

"It just keeps you on your 'A' game," Young said. "It forces you to take no days off really. There's a high expectation in the running game at Tennessee, and they're going to force us to meet it."

The move represents a vote of confidence in Lane, who entered preseason camp as the Vols' top returning rusher yet headed into the North Carolina State game third on the depth chart.

Lane bounced back Friday with the most productive performance of his career. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley praised Lane for avoiding "the mulligrubs," a reference that had reporters reaching for their dictionaries. Mulligrubs is a southern expression for grumpiness.

"That's how it is in sports," Dooley said. "You just keep sawing wood, and when you get an opportunity, you take advantage of it."

The change also indicates the Vols didn't give Young enough opportunities against North Carolina State.

"They said they wished they would have worked me in a little earlier in the second half," said Young, the smallest of the three backs at 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds. "They went with more of a power running game, which is obviously not me. I can do it, but they feel more comfortable with Lane and Neal doing it."

Neal still could keep his job.

Dooley noted that Neal is reacclimating himself to the backfield after primarily playing wide receiver last season. Neal showed toughness on an 8-yard touchdown run in which he bounced off one defender and drove through two more. He knows what he needs to change.

"Just make one decision and stick with it," Neal said. "Take what they give you and don't try to force as much as I did. It comes with being the first game and being excited and wanting to do as much as I can. At times I've got to take those 1- to 3-yard gains and just keep moving forward."

And, of course, he must stop listening to his evil twin.

Notes: The injury that sidelined linebacker Herman Lathers on Friday involves his right shoulder, the same one that was surgically repaired in January 2011. Lathers is listed as probable for Saturday's game. "It's just an AC sprain, a little separation," Lathers said Tuesday. "I'm just going to put a brace on it and get going tomorrow." ... Dooley wasn't impressed with his team's practice effort Tuesday as it prepares for Georgia State, a Football Championship Subdivision team that lost 33-6 to South Carolina State last week. "We've got to get it going," Dooley said. "We need to exercise a little level of maturity that good teams have. We're not there yet."