South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore (21) runs for a first down during the first half against Georgia. The youngsters are taking over in Southeastern Conference backfields. Across the league, young or previously unknown backs helped carry their teams to victories last weekend, including Auburn's Michael Dyer.
Tennessee showed improvement on the practice field Wednesday, bouncing back inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center from a subpar effort the day before.
“We had a lot better practice today,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “It was a good response, with good energy, a lot of hitting -- it was good.”
But Dooley knows his 2-5 squad can’t keep going through an up-and-down week if it wants to spring an upset Saturday at SEC Eastern Division leader South Carolina. Kickoff is set for 12:21 p.m. Eastern time on the Vol Network and SEC Network.
One bit of good news is the continued improving physical condition of junior quarterback Matt Simms, who Dooley expects to play. The Vols coach is unsure, however, of the game-time status of sophomore defensive back Marsalis Teague, who is battling turf toe.
“Toes are scary. The only thing that can make it better is rest. A lot of injuries, you can work through them and it doesn’t really set you back. Sometimes the smallest injuries become the most damaging.”
South Carolina, leading the SEC East at 3-2 and 5-2 overall, owes much of its success this season to the play of freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore. The Duncan, S.C., product is fifth in the league with a rushing average of 89.7 yards, just ahead of Tennessee’s Tauren Poole at 85.0. But Lattimore leads the SEC in scoring at 12 points per game on 12 touchdowns.
“One thing that makes a great runner is yards after contact, and he out-works a lot of defenders,” Dooley said of Lattimore. “He’s a heavy, physical, tough runner.
“Everybody makes yards different ways. His way is, he’s going to get you on an edge and he’s going to out-work you. He wears you down over time, and he’s done that to some really good defenses.”
Another freshman making an impact this season is UT’s Rajion Neal, who has 292 all-purpose yards and is becoming especially successful at catching passes out of the backfield for long gains. Neal caught a 58-yarder at Georgia and hauled in a 26-yarder last Saturday against Alabama.
“He’s athletic, he’s fast and he’s got good ball skills,” Dooley said of his Tyrone, Ga., product. “When you run that rail route, there are a lot of different positions where the ball can be. It can be over the top, back shoulder, up high -- depending on the leverage of the defender. He does a good job of catching it.
“He can do some more receiver-type things than others. Every back has some strengths and every back has some things they don’t do as well. You’re just trying to use their strengths to give you an advantage; that’s all you’re trying to do.”
Dooley released that senior fullback Kevin Cooper is serving a one-game suspension Saturday for academic team rule issues. Freshman Channing Fugate replaces Cooper in the lineup.