Derek Dooley: The physics of football
Only the offensive linemen and a handful of others remained on the practice field Tuesday while Tennessee running back Marlin Lane ran back and forth through "The Blaster."
The apparatus simulates a small tunnel that a running back like Lane would be lucky to find Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 7:15 p.m.) at No. 2 Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC).
Jutting out from both sides are plastic bats, which not only simulate 10 or so arms grabbing for the ball, but also put a hefty beating on the player as he runs through it.
As coach Derek Dooley said to the group during positional drills, it helps build a running back's "coat of armor."
Just a freshman and a little more than two years removed from serious knee surgery, Lane still is in the early stages of solidifying that coat. At this point of the season and at this point of a brutal SEC schedule, any extra time with the Blaster can't hurt.
"It's hard. Get hit a lot," Dooley said. "Most guys when they come out of high school, they expect to feel great all the time. It doesn't happen like that."
Lane, perhaps, has been the exception to a term that gets thrown around a lot at UT: the "freshman wall."
It's around this point of the season where freshmen such as Lane who have seen significant playing time from Day 1 start to wear down from the mental and physical anguish of SEC football.
"At first you're like, 'Wow, I'm out here playing with all these grown men,' " said right tackle Ja'Wuan James, who started all 13 games as a true freshman last season. "Then right about this time you hit that wall like you're starting to feel a little tired and stuff might not be going your way.
"I see Marlin, he just keeps working and he finds a way to make a play."
In the last two games, Lane has been at his best.
Against Georgia, with the running game stuck in neutral, he led the Vols (3-3, 0-3) with six receptions for 84 yards. In last week's loss to LSU, Lane tied his season-long with an 18-yard run in the first quarter and finished with 43
on just six carries.
"I'm just getting confident in myself," Lane said in his first interview since joining the Vols. "I'm learning the plays and trying to execute. It's so fast and just books and books, learning and learning."
The learning curve for Lane has been painfully obvious at times, especially when he's coming out of the backfield and things aren't unfolding according to the script.
Before his effort Saturday, Lane had 96 yards on 37 carries — an average of 2.59 yards per carry. The numbers look even worse when the first carry of his career, an 18-yarder against Montana, is dropped from the total.
On top of an offensive line that wasn't opening enough holes, Lane was running a step too slow, thinking instead of actually running. The combination resulted in too many runs not even reaching the line of scrimmage.
"We've been on him for several weeks about getting the ball and going," Dooley said. "He's not there yet as a runner. There were a couple of times in the game he got the ball and he gets spooked over here and he's stopped and he tries to run outside. You just go.
"He's doing good things and he's showing up every game making plays for us. He's going to be a good player for us."
Lane hasn't shown that hesitancy in the passing game, where he's picked up 12 receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He runs with a smooth pace, but has a shifty demeanor that's made a number of linebackers and defensive backs whiff on tackle attempts.
Dooley called it an "elusive ability," and he's hoping to see it on every play, not just on short passes.
"He's got to learn to run with a little more power. That's what he doesn't have right now. It's a confidence thing," Dooley said. "Some runners run to deliver a blow to the defenders. Some runners run to avoid getting hit. The good runners I've ever been around, they run and when a guy comes to hit them, They're delivering the blow. That's what you got to develop. You've got to train your body that way.
"It's a mind-set. It's a physical presence."
Lane said he struggled sometimes with the proper mind-set during his senior season at Mainland High in Daytona Beach, Fla. He was coming off surgery for a torn ACL, a procedure that was supposed to keep him out for the entire year, and more than a bulky brace was holding him back.
Extensive months of training that involved daily work in a sand pit helped erase the doubts.
"It made me realize the months I was out how much I was missing in football," Lane said. "When I started training I took it day by day and made myself get up and do it."
It's that same kind of motivation that kept Lane on the practice field Tuesday long after the majority of his teammates left.
Just him and the Blaster.
"Contact is not really anything," Lane said. "If I have to bring it, I bring it."