AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Add running back to the growing list of skill-position concerns for Tennessee as it approaches the end of spring practice.
Marlin Lane's continued absence for disciplinary reasons leaves Rajion Neal as the only Tennessee running back who carried the ball last season. Lane has missed the Volunteers' last four practices.
"He has some criteria that have to be met," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "He's meeting that criteria, but as of right now he's still out and that's all I'll comment."
Lane rushed for 658 yards and two touchdowns on 120 carries last season, while Neal gained 708 yards and scored five touchdowns on 156 attempts.
The combination of Lane and Neal could take some of the pressure off Tennessee's passing attack this fall as the Volunteers break in a new starting quarterback and attempt to replace potential first-round draft picks Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter in the receiving corps.
If Lane doesn't return, Tennessee would have reason to worry about its depth and experience at all the offensive skill positions.
"I hope and pray that he's back," Neal said. "At the end of the day, that's our teammate. That's our brother. I'd known Lane outside of football before coming here. I hope everything's all right and he can return and come on and help us get to where we're trying to get to as a team."
As long as Lane remains out, Neal is Tennessee's lone experienced running back.
"Obviously it's not the position that you want to be in," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "You'd like to be able to have more depth, more guys who have been in game-time situations. But it is what it is right now."
Devrin Young had 33 carries and Alton "Pig" Howard ran the ball 14 times for Tennessee last season, but both are wide receivers. Young moved over from running back this spring to help the Vols solve their depth problems in the receiving corps.
Jones said he has no plans to return Young to the backfield.
"We are going to go with the running backs that we have," Jones said.
Lane's absence has given Tennessee's other running backs additional opportunities to make an impression on the new coaching staff. Neal and redshirt freshman Alden Hill have made the most of the situation.
When Jones was asked to name players who had stood out this spring, Hill and Neal were the first two players he mentioned.
"I'm not afraid off going out there and carrying about 25-30 times," Neal said. "Sunday, I might be laying on my back, but I'm not afraid of it. I'm trying to show them and let them know that I'd rather die out there than die on the sidelines."
Hill has become one of the spring's biggest surprises.
After spending last season on the scout team, Hill has played well enough to emerge as Tennessee's second-team running back in Lane's absence.
"I think Alden Hill has had a tremendous spring," Jones said. "He continues to get better and better. He has the mentality that we expect and demand."
Tennessee will need Hill to continue making that kind of progress, particularly if Lane doesn't return. Tennessee returns four starters on an offensive line that should rank among the nation's best, but the Vols still need backs who know how to run through those holes.
"It's going to be a maturation process in front of 100,000 people, 80,000 people," Gillespie said. "They're going to make some mistakes. Hopefully they make more plays than mistakes."
Gillespie is dealing with Tennessee's lack of depth and experience by drawing on his own background. He previously worked as the running backs coach at West Virginia, which relied on freshman running backs Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie and Vernard Roberts during the 2011 season.
That team went on to win the Orange Bowl, and Garrison rushed for a team-high 742 yards. Gillespie said that collection of running backs faced many of the same questions he's hearing now about this group.
"We just have to not panic, not push the panic button," Gillespie said. "That's what we (as coaches) get paid to do. We help those kids gain confidence. We'll build them up, and then we'll go play with who we have."
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