Replacing Neal: Tennessee boasts solid backfield tandem with Lane-Hurd
It’s always an annual challenge trying to replace an impact player, but in the SEC, coaches are paid to recruit and develop the next standout athlete in fear of the impending hot seat should seasons turn sour.
Over a two-week period, we’ll take a look at a key player loss for each program in the conference and break down that position’s potential replacements. Rest assured, a few of these guys will be household names by season’s end.
- SOUTH CAROLINA
- OLE MISS
- TEXAS A&M
- MISSISSIPPI STATE
- TODAY: Tennessee
- Monday: LSU
The jury’s still out on whether or not the Vols will be able to control the line of scrimmage this season with an all-new offensive line, but the weapons in the backfield are promising, notably senior tailback Marlin Lane and five-star true freshman Jalen Hurd.
Lost amid a disappointing 2013 season was the overall production Tennessee’s offense received out of now Green Bay Packers rookie Rajion Neal, a hard-nosed ballcarrier who set career-highs in attempts (215), yards (1,124) and touchdowns (12) on the ground. Neal posted five 100-yard games and reached the end zone against every opponent except Oregon, Florida and Mizzou.
The Vols are hoping Lane and Hurd can navigate through minimal creases early behind an inexperienced wall of blockers to help an offense that’s struggled to put together sustained drives in recent years. A reliable running game would most importantly take some of the initial burden off of senior quarterback Justin Worley who recently won the job over Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman.
Signed as an instant-impact player out of Hendersonville, Tenn., Hurd recently had his black stripes — signifying his status as a rookie — removed after showing coaches a strong work ethic and willingness to perform.
He’ll likely share totes in the opener against Utah State with Lane who is third on the SEC’s active list with 1,472 yards rushing, behind only Georgia’s Todd Gurley (2,374) and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (2,343).
Despite Neal’s stature as an 1,100-yard rusher last season, the Tennessee offense averaged just 353 yards per game, 105th overall in the FBS ranks. Only Kentucky and Florida scored fewer points and produced less total yardage in the SEC.
The addition of Hurd, a rejuvenated Lane as the primary option and a confident Worley could change that if Tennessee’s new-look offensive line performs.