Tennessee football position preview: Running backs will lean on Marlin Lane, Jalen Hurd

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The second in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in three months.

Rajion Neal celebrates with fans after the Vols beat Kentucky earlier this month (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — It’s been nearly a decade since Tennessee had more rushing yards than the Vols did in 2013.

While that distinction may speak to the lack of a passing game in this year’s offense, it also speaks to the strength of the Vols’ experienced offensive line and running back duo.

The line will be gone in 2014, but veteran running back Marlin Lane will return. Instead of longtime partner Rajion Neal, Lane will likely be paired with true freshman Jalen Hurd, a five-star prospect who is expected to play an immediate role in the offense.

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Neal is the big loss off the 2013 roster. Reserve Tom Smith also parted ways with the program after the semester.

Smith did well in garbage time roles in 2013, but never threatened for meaningful playing time. Alden Hill seems likely to be in the same role and he must cement his value on special teams in order to be a factor moving forward.

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Justus Pickett is a Maryland transfer who walked on and sat out last year. It remains to be seen if he’ll be an option in 2014.

That leaves Hurd to share the load with Lane. Treyvon Paulk missed all of 2013 after an ACL tear. He says he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab. Even so, the Vols would probably like to add an extra back, as there is little depth behind Lane and Hurd.

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In 2014, it’s a safe bet to expect Lane and Hurd to share snaps. Hurd’s contribution to the partnership will depend on his readiness and Lane’s performance. After 2014, the stage belongs to Hurd alone. Even so, the Vols must continue to recruit the position to build depth.

A note on this series: As National Signing Day approaches, we’ll review each of Tennessee’s positions with an eye toward spring football in 2014. The spreadsheets will be updated as players commit, sign, enroll or depart. Check out the preview of the offensive line.

A note on the statistics: The snap count shown in the first graphic includes only offensive snaps. It does not count special teams. The statistics are unofficial and come from our snap-by-snap database. “YPP” is yards per play, or simply the number of yards Tennessee gained while the player was on the field, divided by the player’s total snaps. “Adjusted YPP” adjusts the average for various factors, including game, situation, formation, down, distance and position. “Impact factor” is the degree to which a player’s YPP outperformed the average YPP for a player in a similar situation. A factor of 100 is average; above that is better, lower is worse. Adjusted YPP and Impact Factor should be viewed as “interesting” stats more than terribly relevant ones. Someone who plays every snap will, by definition, have an Impact Factor of 100. On the other end, the small sample size of many reserves means just one or two plays can significantly shift their score.