KNOXVILLE — There are few — if any — personnel groups on offense that new Tennessee head coach Butch Jones would likely consider ideal, which makes the job ahead for running backs Marlon Lane and Rajion Neal that much more important.
The duo combined for 1,364 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012, providing the Volunteers with the rare dose of experience at an offensive skill position. That’s a small break of luck for Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, although if Saturday’s scrimmage in Knoxville was any indication, the pair has a long way to go before meeting the new staff’s standard.
Jones was specifically critical of his backs following a defensive showpiece last Saturday in which the offense routinely stalled in three-and-outs.
“We missed a couple of big time cuts that created a minus-two yard gain, and when you run the football you can’t have negative yardage plays,” Jones said.
“They should’ve been 8-to-10 yard plays if we keep our eyes up. Those are teaching moment, and I know our running backs are extremely prideful. We’ll challenge them and they’ll come back.”
Jones’ Cincinnati running attack was built around multiple backs working out of the spread formation, something SEC fans have grown accustomed to seeing from Auburn’s Gus Malzahn. The cuts and reads Lane and company are crash-coursing this spring are vital for offensive lines blocking in the spread.
“I like the running game because it’s going to open up a lot of holes once we get it down pat,” Lane said.
Jones repeatedly emphasized the importance of field vision for both backs.
“And stretching the defense outside, that’s cutting and reading,” Lane added.
“They’re getting vertical,” Jones said. “Each individual has a little more to do than the other but I think the big thing is [keeping] your eyes up and trusting your eyes, letting your instincts take over and being disciplined with your eyes to do your run reads,” Jones said.
The protection schemes for the offensive line will simplify to a degree, as the spread run is designed to move quickly and push the pace of the game, even for adjustments along the front.
“I think it provides the backs with clean cuts and clean reads and it gives us a blocking scheme that we can apply to a lot of defenses, so it allows us to go out and be more aggressive and increase the tempo,” senior center James Stone, a Maplewood High School graduate, said.
The Bearcats led the Big East in rushing last season with a 201.46 yard average per game, but that stat was bolstered by the mobility of quarterback Munchie Legaux.
Tennessee won’t have a quarterback option as fast as Legaux, but the good news is that Jones’ offense is predicated on multiple running threats to create confusion. Even when the much-less-mobile Brendon Kay replaced Legaux late in the season, the average rushing yards from the position barely declined (30.45 with Legaux, 27.82 with Kay).
If former playcaller Jim Chaney lived and died with the passing attack, the new Tennessee offense is expected to lean heavily on Neal and Lane while developing a brand new battery of quarterbacks and receivers. Jones had previously complimented the pair’s effort in earlier practices and was quick to emphasize that any failure of the run game was a system-wide fault.
“It’s a combination of everyone, everyone wants to point just towards the O-line, but an effective run team, which we’ve been for a number of years, it’s about all 11 guys. It’s the quarterback carrying out his run fake, making the right progression and whether to deal the ball or run the ball, it’s receivers making blocks downfield, it’s tight ends, it’s everyone,” he said.
Jones’ system can create a feature back — Winn rushed for more than 1,200 yards alone last season, and former Bearcat Isaiah Pead parlayed a 3,288 career total at Cincinnati into a second round pick by the St. Louis Rams.
With five-star running back Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville’s Beech High committed for the 2014 class, Jones soon will have the most talented, versatile back of his head coaching career.
In the meantime, he’ll fashion a by-committee attack. Lane told reporters that he expected both he and Neal to see significant time this fall, apropos of either being named the starter.
As for the development until the opener against Austin Peay in August, Stone warned against heavily evaluating any one good or bad showing from this extremely green offense.
“I feel like we’ve made some improvement in terms of communication and everybody being on the same page,” he said, “but we’ve got a ways to go.”