While all attention is focused on the battle for Tennessee’s No. 1 quarterback, running back coach Robert Gillespie said Monday that no No. 1 tailback currently exists.
Moreover, Gillespie added, will there likely be a true No. 1 going into the Vols’ season opener against Austin Peay on Aug. 31.
“I don’t think there’s really a one for us as an offense,” Gillespie said following Monday’s practice. “Both those guys (Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane) are going to play. Who goes out first doesn’t matter. I don’t have a one in my head. Whether (offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian) or (head coach Butch Jones) does, I’ll leave that up to them.”
Except Lane isn’t playing at all at the moment.
The junior has recently been only working out on the sidelines for undisclosed reasons. Asked Monday for an update, Gillespie responded, “Nothing. There’s no situation.”
“We’re just trying to be smart,” he continued. “It’s the end of camp and some guys just need a little time to rest. He’s one of those guys. He missed a lot of reps in the spring so we’re just trying to bring him in slowly. We’re just resting him.”
While Neal has consistently worked with the first team offense, redshirt sophomore running back Tom Smith has seen an opportunity to emerge in Lane’s absence. Smith posted a nice showing in Saturday’s open practice and slipped through the interior of the line for a pair of touchdowns in goal-line situations on Monday.
“I think this is the first time he’s really getting meaningful reps and he’s shown a lot of improvement,” Gillespie said. “Hopefully we can find a role for him.”
If Gillespie does, it will likely be primarily as a pass protector and short-yardage rusher. As of now, Smith’s largest contribution remains as a special teams player. That doesn’t mean he won’t see the field with the offense, though, despite only appearing in three career games.
“From a depth standpoint, he’s a guy that’s going to be forced to have to play,” Gillespie said.
Regardless of having a true No. 1 in the backfield, Gillespie said the offense will utilize Neal and Lane on the field together.
“No doubt,” he said. “We’ll definitely try to do those things.”
Speaking of naming No. 1s, wide receivers coach Zack Azzanni was asked Monday if he has decided on his starters.
While a depth chart might come next week, Azzanni said Alton “Pig” Howard has done enough in camp to play a lot of snaps and pointed to Devrin Young as having had a good camp.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek indicated neither linebacker Curt Maggitt (ACL) nor defensive end Jacques Smith (thumb) will be ready for the opener.
“I’m not counting on Curt for the first game,” Jancek said.
Smith, meanwhile, is “not going to do anything” until a pin is removed from his broken right thumb in the next two or three weeks, Jancek said.
Jancek pointed to defensive end Jordan Williams, who is listed behind Smith on the preseason depth chart, as being the preseason’s “most impressive” defensive lineman. Jancek cited his improved play, especially in the pass rush.
Offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman, a freshman who impressed early in camp, is still limping noticeably. He was helped off the field during Saturday’s scrimmage and remains out of action.
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney did not disclose what the injury is, but said, “Everything I’ve heard is positive.”
He later added, “(Wiesman) is a guy that’s taken strides and that we’re going to be able to count on this year.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee football and men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/QuinnKNS.