"They've shown some great vision, elusiveness and the ability to create big plays - not only from the backfield but also down the field in a receiver role," running backs graduate assistant coach Chino Fontenette said recently. "All of those guys - Tauren Poole, Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane, Tom Smith - they've been very productive so far in this camp."
Especially, it seems, when the ball is thrown to them.
"They catch the ball very well," Fontenette said. "They're all blessed with very good receiving ability, and we're able to use them in different ways - deep routes, short routes, screens and so forth. They've all done really well catching the ball out of the backfield."
Sophomore Neal has done so well catching the football that he has been getting some practice repetitions with the receivers. That's understandable.
"Rajion's best asset," Fontenette said, "is that he has really good speed and very good hands."
Tennessee struggled to run the ball against quality defenses last fall but the Vols partially overcame this deficiency by throwing the ball to their backs. Poole caught 22 passes in 2010, averaging nearly two receptions per game. Neal averaged 14.3 yards on seven catches, turning one into a 58-yard gain. Fullback Channing Fugate registered 45 receptions as a high school sophomore, so he's a receiving threat, as well.
Although running productively is Job One, Fontenette says backs who also boast receiving skills give an offense tremendous flexibility.
"It gives you different ways to attack defenses," he said. "Being in a pro-style offense, it kind of complements the run game and keeps defensive coordinators on their toes, not knowing what to expect."
Still, for Tennessee to improve on last fall's 6-7 record the Vols must run the ball considerably better. Last season's 109.2 yards-per-game rushing average ranked dead last in the SEC. Fontenette believes he has the backs capable of delivering a more productive run game in 2011.
"They've been very impressive as far as their level of physicality," he said. "They all have really good stature and speed. Tom Smith is more of an inside, downhill runner. Marlin Lane's a very smooth runner. Tauren Poole is just a complete back, as far as his understanding of the game and the experience he was able to gain last year."
Poole ran for 1,034 yards as a junior last fall, no small feat considering that he was running behind a line that featured a senior, a sophomore and three true freshmen. The young'uns have grown up a lot since then.
"Hopefully, the offensive line having a year of experience under their belt will help," Fontenette said. "Those guys have come together as a unit, instead of being just five individuals out there. We have those two guys (wide receivers Justin Hunter, Da' Rick Rogers) on the outside that are definitely vertical threats. Hopefully, that gives us a chance to be able to run the ball a little more effectively this year."
If not, Tennessee can always throw the ball to its running backs. That might prove to be a pretty good fall-back plan.