ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (AP) — Improving a running game that ranked 116th in the country last season as been one of the main priorities for Tennessee this offseason.
So far there have been some hopeful signs during preseason practice for the Volunteers.
Coach Derek Dooley said the Vols did a good job and met all of their goals running the ball in Saturday's scrimmage, which was the first of fall camp. Tennessee's tailbacks combined to run for 295 yards, including 134 yards from Rajion Neal.
In addition to Neal, sophomores Marlin Lane and Devrin Young figure to get the bulk of the carries this fall. Lane was used some in a wildcat package last season, and coaches are experimenting more with the package in camp.
"I've said we have three guys who can help us win running the ball," Dooley said. "We've got to do a good job around them blocking and throwing the football because we're not going to lineup two tight ends, I-formation and pound people. We're not those kind of guys."
Neal split time last season between running back and wide receiver. He finished the year with 134 yards rushing and caught 13 passes for 269 yards. Lane, while battling multiple injuries, was the team's second-leading rusher with 280 yards, and added 161 receiving. Young played mostly as a returner, and only carried the ball six times.
Lane is more of a between-the-tackles runner, while Neal and Young — both of whom joined the Vols' track team in the spring — like to use their speed to get outside.
"(Neal) and Devrin have an ability when they get in space," Dooley said. "They are both fast guys. Our job as an offense is creating that space for them. That's when they play well."
In the past, Neal's biggest hurdles were fumbling issues and not playing physical. This offseason, he worked out with the Vols' offensive linemen and coaches want Neal to better utilize his 5-foot-11, 211-pound frame.
"I feel the offense has a great deal of confidence in running the ball, but it's still room for improvement," Neal said. "It starts up front with those guys (on the offensive line)."
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The biggest change up front is 6-foot-6, 323-pound sophomore Antonio Richardson. Richardson played a reserve role last season, but has been the team's starting left tackle since spring practice. Coaches slid senior Dallas Thomas, a two-year starter at left tackle, to left guard. Junior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said Richardson improves the lines' run blocking and brings a physical style that has been lacking in recent years.
Tennessee has been holding preseason practice at Milligan College this week.
Dooley announced freshman inside linebacker Kenny Bynum had success surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee and will redshirt the upcoming season.
Junior Maurice Couch worked at defensive end in first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri's scheme on Monday. Couch was previously playing nose tackle. At the nose was Daniel McCullers, a 6-foot-6, 377-pound junior college transfer, who coaches have been pleased with so far in fall camp.
Dooley said senior cornerback Marsalis Teague had the best scrimmage of his career on Saturday. Teague, who's eight games in each of the last two seasons, is playing with confidence and trusting his technique, according to Dooley.
The Vols open the season on Aug. 31 against North Carolina State in Atlanta.