Redshirt freshman running back Alden Hill was the hero of Saturday’s scrimmage, bowling over tacklers, scoring touchdowns and enjoying a rare moment in the sun after a long season spent on the scout team.
That’s a good sign, because Hill may be called on to contribute in real games far sooner than anyone anticipated.
Junior running back Marlin Lane, the team’s most productive running back a year ago and the top candidate to win the starting job in 2013, is away from the team due to unspecified “disciplinary reasons,” coach Butch Jones said Saturday.
Although Jones left open the possibility of a return, the nature of Lane’s absence has cast at least some doubt on his future with the program.
“We hold our players to a very high standard of accountability here at Tennessee,” said Jones, without elaborating on the nature of Lane’s transgression. “The way we play, the way we win off the field, the way we go to class, the way we excel in the classroom — it’s a high level of accountability in all aspects.”
Lane carried 120 times for 658 yards and caught 29 passes for 228 yards last season, but had yet to emerge as the elite SEC back that many believed he would be when the Vols signed him out of Daytona Beach, Fla.
Even so, Lane and senior Rajion Neal are the only two experienced backs on the Vols’ roster, and the depth behind them is perilously thin.
Hill, who redshirted last year, is the next option behind the two veterans. Although running backs coach Robert Gillespie said Hill has improved more than any other player this spring, he wasn’t seen as a candidate to earn a significant role in 2013 — until Saturday.
“It’s not just getting the opportunity; it’s taking advantage of the opportunity,” said Hill after Saturday’s scrimmage.
After a year on the scout team, Hill looked lost at times early in the spring, but coaches admired his toughness, even when he was struggling at drills, and Gillespie said Hill did extra work on his own in an effort to catch up.
“He’s been a great surprise this spring,” Jones said.
After Hill, there’s junior Tom Smith, a scholarship player who has battled injuries and appeared in only three games in his UT career, and Deanthonie Summerhill, a veteran walk-on who has played well this spring. Neither are likely to be serious options to play regularly.
If the worst-case scenario occurs and Lane is gone for good, where else could the Vols turn? Devrin Young moved from running back to receiver before the spring. Although the receiving corps is struggling with depth as well, the dire situation at running back might warrant a return to the backfield. Alton “Pig” Howard, a receiver who played a versatile role a year ago, could also see more action at running back.
Jabo Lee, the running back prospect from Dillon, S.C., who was a last-minute addition to Tennessee’s 2013 class, also would have a chance to play an important role — assuming he qualifies academically.
The wild card is Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the highly regarded freshman athlete who enrolled in January but is sitting out the spring due to an injured shoulder. Reeves-Maybin is currently a safety, but he played a lot of running back in high school and could be an intriguing option for 2013, if nothing else.
Of course, Lane could return next week and end much of the speculation about his status. Until then, a roster filled with questions will have another glaring one.