The battle to be Tennessee's No. 1 running back has been reopened after Marlin Lane bounced back from a subpar August to be the Vols' leading rusher Friday night against North Carolina State.
The new depth chart released Monday lists Lane as a co-starter with Devrin Young and Rajion Neal, who won the job out of camp but was criticized by coach Derek Dooley for not being aggressive enough inside.
"I'm proud of Marlin," Dooley said. "He struggled a little bit in camp and the other guys played really well. It would have been easy for Marlin to get the mulligrubbs and say, 'I'm getting screwed.' But he kept a real good attitude. That's how it is in sports. You just keep sawing wood, and when you get your opportunity, you take advantage of it."
Lane rushed for 75 yards on nine carries Friday, while Neal had 53 yards on 22 carries. Young had only two rushing attempts.
Neal said he was too greedy in his first game as the top back, looking to bounce outside in an attempt to make a big play.
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"I've just got to take what they give me," Neal said. "There wasn't much at times, but there were times when we needed to get a few yards instead of bouncing outside. I think that just comes with it being the first game and being excited and wanting to do as much as I can."
All three backs are likely to get plenty of looks in Saturday's game against Georgia State (4 p.m., Pay-Per-View). Dooley said he wants to get Young more involved. Beyond that, opportunities will be determined by who delivers on Saturdays.
"The most important thing is who's producing on game day," Dooley said. "The hard thing is you say you need a bunch of touches to produce. Well, get in there and take advantage of your opportunity and you'll keep getting the ball. That part hasn't changed."
Neal said the Wolfpack did an effective job of shutting down run lanes. When he ran outside last Friday, he wasn't shying away from contact, he said, but simply trying to make a play.
Coaches have since impressed upon him to hit the hole hard and fast — not hesitating to make decisions — and to take what the defense offers, even if it's only two or three yards.
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"I've got to make that one decision and go with it," Neal said.
Lane, a sophomore from Daytona Beach, Fla, entered this year as the Vols' top returning rusher after carrying 75 times for 280 yards in 2011.
But he injured his hand and was limited in summer workouts. His performance in camp wasn't bad; coaches just thought he was outpaced by Neal and Young.
"The other guys were probably a little more energized," Dooley said. "They were hungrier. I don't think it was as much Marlin as the other two having a real focus. Marlin was the only returning rusher, so I think it's natural to come in and say, 'Well, I'm going to be the guy.' "
It may turn out that way after all if Lane can follow up his performance in the opener with another strong game against Georgia State.
Lane said he didn't enter the N.C. State game with any sort of chip on his shoulder, but he did want to prove he could do the job.
"I just went out there and played physical every time," Lane said. "I tried to set the tone with the running game. ... After nine months of hitting each other, I just wanted to go out there and show the hard work that we did all spring and all year long."
Lane understands that he can't let up after one game.
"It gave me confidence, but each week you're going to have to step up and keep on pushing the run game," Lane said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.