KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee tailback Marlin Lane is making the most of a second chance.
Lane couldn’t beat out teammate Rajion Neal for the Volunteers’ starting tailback spot and initially struggled in a reserve role. But he has come on strong since an ankle injury started limiting Neal.
L a n e ’ s career-high 132 rushing yards and game-w i n n i n g touchdown s o m e h o w got lost amid the record-setting totals produced by Tennessee’s passing attack in a 55-48 victory over Troy last week.
Now that Neal is working his way back into peak form, the Vols hope they can have two quality backs carrying their vastly improved rushing attack. Tennessee heads into Saturday’s game with Missouri averaging 162 yards rushing per game and 4.7 yards per carry this season after running for just 90.1 yards per game and 2.8 yards per attempt a year ago.
“I’m just staying consistent and keep working hard,” Lane said. “That was the biggest part, just staying consistent.”
That also was the toughest part of Lane’s development. Lane’s struggles with consistency as he recovered from a broken hand prevented him from making much of an impact early in the season. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley says that represents the biggest change in Lane since the beginning of the year.
“These last two games, we’ve seen a Marlin Lane who’s the same at practice every day, and then he goes out and we know what we’re getting in a game,” Dooley said. “That was something we didn’t really get coming into the year and earlier in the year. I’m proud of Marlin. He’s really stepped up and he’s performing the way he’s capable of.”
The Vols didn’t really need much from Lane early in the season because Neal was playing so well.
Neal rushed for 460 yards and four touchdowns through the first five games of the season, including a 151-yard performance against Akron and a 104-yard effort against Georgia in consecutive weeks. He injured his ankle on Oct. 13 and missed the Vols’ next two games.
In his return to action last week, Neal rushed for 32 yards on seven carries and caught a 23-yard touchdown pass. Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham said Neal is feeling better and getting more reps in practice this week.
“I’ve played this game for a long time, so I wasn’t afraid,” Neal said. “I went out there saying, ‘Hey, if it’s going to get broke, it’s just going to get broke, but I’m going to go out here full speed and keep rolling.’ “
Lane hadn’t carried the ball more than nine times in any of Tennessee’s first six games, but he responded well to an increased workload after Neal’s injury. Over his last three games, Lane has rushed for 243 yards and two touchdowns on 49 carries.
Graham said he Lane’s improvement started even before Neal got sidelined. Graham said he noticed a difference in Lane during the off week that led up to an Oct. 13 trip to Mississippi State. Neal got injured during the Mississippi State game.
“During the open week, I really felt he started pushing through and trying to practice as close to game day (intensity) as you can,” Graham said. “You’re going to play faster when you practice faster. He’s starting to understand what that means.”
A healthy Neal and an improved Lane could give the Vols a quality duo to carry the ball for the rest of the season in their bid for a bowl berth. Neal has rushed for 532 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry this year. Lane has run for 428 yards and two touchdowns while gaining 5 yards per attempt.
Tennessee’s coaches haven’t indicated how they might divide carries.
“They’re both productive,” Dooley said. “It always depends on who’s kind of got that groove going in a game.”