Butch Jones at first UT preseason practice
The free market in Tennessee’s backfield isn’t reserved for quarterbacks.
Don’t forget there’s another job up for grabs.
“Honestly, it’s wide open,” said UT’s perceived No. 1 running back, Raijon Neal, when asked to describe the position battle for top ball carrier.
It’s a murky openness and might remain that way from the Vols’ first fall practice, held Friday at Haslam Field, to the final practice before the Aug. 31 opener against Austin Peay.
The outlook is skewed because the factors are complex. Neal, a senior, has the most experience, boasting 225 career carries. Marlin Lane, however, averaged a full yard more per carry in 2012 than Neal (5.5 to 4.5), but then traversed a question mark-filed offseason after being suspended from team activities in the spring.
The two are considered the top contenders for starting duties, but Lane, a junior, was left off a preseason depth chart.
Neal says that is a moot point.
“Coach said there’s no depth chart,” said Neal, who rushed for five touchdowns a year ago. “You pretty much have to go out there and compete every day.”
Then there is Alden Hill.
Following Tennessee’s first practice way back in the spring, the redshirt freshman was just another number. Most onlookers still needed to glance at a roster to identify No. 30.
That all changed when Hill took advantage of Lane’s absence to emerge as a significant storyline in spring ball. Unknown not long ago, Hill was surrounded by tape recorders and cameras after Friday’s practice.
Immediately asked about jockeying for playing time, Hill said he wasn't content with his spring performance.
“Yeah I might have a name and people might know what I’m doing or that I’m a hard worker, but I haven’t played yet,” said Hill, who capped his strong spring with 101 yards on 18 carries in the Orange and White game.
“I always knew I could do it and a lot of times I didn’t have opportunities, but once I got the opportunities I made the best of it,” Hill added. “I think now that I have done it, I know I can do it and it’s reassuring to the fans and the coaches, too.”
Speaking of the running back spot, don’t forget Maryland transfer Justus Pickett. The early summer addition who is a walk-on at UT was on the field Friday and is included in the program’s official roster.
Asked if the 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior is eligible to play, running backs coach Robert Gillespie said, “There’s a few things that we’re working out but we’re still counting his reps and giving him a chance to do a few things. Right now we’re going to give him some reps as if he’s going to be able to help us this year.”
Pickett rushed for 142 yards on 69 carries, scoring three touchdowns in 2012.
Any freshman initiation is hard to watch, be it in the fraternities dotting the streets around Haslam Field or on the fenced-in field the Vols call home.
Coach Butch Jones’ style of play only highlights the horror. When the Vols get cooking, there is no give-up in between reps. The plays fly like planes in and out of LaGuardia.
In the heat of it all, literally and figuratively this August, Jones and his assistants boom, “Run! Run! Run!”
The veterans got a taste of all this in the spring and played fast under former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
And as veterans tend to do, the upperclassmen are enjoying welcoming the newcomers to the party.
“We’re telling the young guys to pick it up,” said junior offensive tackle Antonio Richardson with no solace. “They don’t really know the pace of practice so sometimes you’ve got to smash those guys up and really let them know, ‘That’s too slow. We’re face paced. You need to move.’ ”
Richardson is 6-6 and 327 pounds. One would imagine his message is heard clearly.
The injury report is mostly clean and clear after day one. Linebacker Justin King worked out on the sidelines with team trainers, while tight end Justin Meredith watched on out of uniform.
No reason was given for either absence.
In his post-practice press conference, Jones didn’t report any injuries from the first practice.
Receiver Josh Smith, a graduate of Christian Academy of Knoxville, and defensive back Malik Foreman, a pair of freshmen, were among a number of young players to take a swing at fielding kicks during special teams drills.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee football and men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.