Highlights from Tennessee's football practice at Milligan College
ELIZABETHTON — Jim Chaney didn't skip across the Milligan College practice fields Tuesday, nor was he was whistling a tune as he held court with reporters.
But the Tennessee offensive coordinator was in such remarkably high spirits that it was impossible not to notice.
"It's a wonderful day," he said.
He was talking about the weather, but he might as well have been speaking about his roster. Junior quarterback Tyler Bray has had a solid camp — "We haven't been yelling at each other as much lately," Chaney said — and the offensive line seems to have gelled quickly. But the most dramatic difference is that the Vols have some semblance of a running game, albeit a fledgling, unproven one.
"Are we the greatest running team in football history? No, but I think we're improved," Chaney said.
All this good news carries the risk of inflated expectations. After all, this is camp. Coaches aren't supposed to be upbeat. They're supposed to harp on small details and view disaster around every corner.
Chaney offered plenty of cautions. The Vols need to develop depth, particularly if injuries strike. The running backs are untested. And there are still 17 days until kickoff.
All that said, Chaney's still smiling.
"I have to say," he said, "I'm in a pretty good frame of mind right now,"
Although Tennessee's running backs are still in flux, Chaney cautiously offered some details on the pecking order. If the season started today, he said, junior Rajion Neal and sophomore Devrin Young would be atop the depth chart.
"That's (coach Derek Dooley's) decision, but that would be my recommendation to him," Chaney said.
Neal rushed for 134 yards on nine carries, including a 68-yard touchdown in Saturday's scrimmage. He's played in 21 games the past two seasons, but has never been a primary ball-carrier. Young, a former standout at Bearden High School, was primarily a kickoff returner in 2011.
Sophomore Marlin Lane also has played well at times and could still make a move before camp ends, Chaney said.
Running backs coach Jay Graham said he was pleased but not entirely satisfied with Neal's scrimmage performance.
"He's been really consistent mentally," Graham said. "I tell him every day, 'You've got to work to get better.' He's done that so far."
As for Bray, Chaney said he hasn't shielded the quarterback from shouldering high expectations.
"Expectations are through the roof with that young man, and I think he's a wonderful football player," Chaney said. "Anytime he comes out and underachieves, he should feel bad about that. He's pretty conscious of that, and that hasn't happened a lot."
Bray, like the rest of the offense, is more mature and receptive to criticism. "(Heck), I haven't changed," Chaney said.
Even with this summer's apparent progress, there's ample room for improvement. Tennessee's offense was ranked 104th in the nation last year, dragged down by a running game that was ranked 116th of 120 FBS teams.
Expectations are comparatively modest. Any help for the passing game to balance the offense would be a bonus.
"There hasn't been a perfect practice yet, so I continue to strive for that, but it's much better than it has been," Chaney said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.