Too small to be an every-down running back but too elusive to ride the bench, the diminutive senior is filling a hybrid running back/receiver role these days that seems to be maximizing his abilities.
Last Saturday's situational scrimmage probably was his best as a Vol. First, he returned a kickoff 50 yards. Moments later, showing a nice burst of speed, he scored untouched on a 12-yard sweep. His next carry produced another 12-yard gain. After recording a couple of catches and a 2-yard run, he again showed his speed with a 13-yard burst off tackle.
Unofficially, Young finished the scrimmage with four carries for 39 yards (an average of 9.75 per carry), two receptions for 10 yards and a 50-yard kickoff return. He seems to be thriving since making the move from hybrid receiver/running back to hybrid running back/receiver.
Based on last Saturday's accomplishments, he appears to be meeting those expectations … perhaps exceeding them. Naturally, the scrimmage performance did wonders for his confidence.
"Every day helps my confidence," he said. "As long as I feel like I'm growing, I feel pretty positive about everything."
Young has played a hybrid rusher/receiver role ever since he arrived at Tennessee from Knoxville's Bearden High School three years ago. After carrying six times for nine yards and catching three passes for 25 more as a freshman tailback in 2011, he showed great promise as a sophomore in 2012. Though stuck behind veteran running backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, he recorded 140 rushing yards on 33 carries and added nine receiving yards on five carries.
A new coaching staff brought a new role in 2013, however, prompting Young's snaps and his production to plummet. Utilized almost exclusively as a slot receiver, he carried but one time for six yards. Although he caught just six passes for 79 yards, two of the grabs produced touchdowns. Ultimately, his most significant contribution came on special teams, as he averaged 7.9 yards on eight punt returns and 25.9 on 18 kickoff returns.
Asked why he seems to be blossoming as a ball-carrier this spring, Young shrugged.
"It's a combination of everything – having a good offseason, working at off-the-field stuff and executing like the coaches want me to," he said. "It's a number of things. You can't just point at one thing and say, ‘This is the reason why a little success is coming around.'"
Young had "a little success" under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in 2012. Asked how the hybrid role he's playing under 2014 offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian compares to the 2012 role under Chaney, Young replied: "I guess the biggest thing is, I get to touch the ball a little bit more. Every day you've got to build up trust with the coaches, and I guess you could say I'm doing that."
Although he's still a hybrid, Young says being a rusher who occasionally lines up in the slot (his 2014 role) isn't the same as being a slotback who occasionally lines up in the backfield (his 2013 role).
"It's a huge difference," he said. "I'd say the biggest difference is having speed control. Lining up out there at wideout you come out of your stance full speed, whereas out of the backfield you've got to let the linemen do what they've got to do, then you do your part."
Since 5-foot-8, 178-pound running backs don't last long in the rugged Southeastern Conference, Young is working hard to add heft and strength.
"Obviously, it's a huge adjustment from being out on the perimeter," he said. "I'd get out of practice with just a scratch on me being at wide receiver. Now you've got to stay in the training room and take care of your body, having a physical mindset each and every day…. I'm definitely trying to get bigger, faster and stronger."
Given his alarming lack of size, Young won't be carrying 20 times per game this fall. The heavy lifting will be done by 6-foot, 215-pound senior Marlin Lane and 6-foot-3, 225-pound freshman Jalen Hurd. Most likely, Young will serve as a "change of pace" back whose abilities as a receiver and perimeter runner make him ideally suited to third-down situations. He seems to realize as much, noting that the key for him is "durability … keeping my body strong."
Young probably picked a good time to switch from being mostly wide receiver to mostly running back. The addition of mid-term enrollees Von Pearson and Josh Malone, plus the obvious progress of holdover wideouts Marquez North, Jason Croom, Josh Smith, Johnathon Johnson and Cody Blanc, has created a real dogfight for playing time at that position. Young concedes that the receiving corps is a lot stronger than it was last fall.
"It improved a lot, as far as the standards Coach Z (Zach Azzanni) puts on ‘em," Young said. "They're getting tighter, they're all making plays and we're getting a lot better blocking on the perimeter. I'd say the wide receiver corps has really grown this spring camp."
Tennessee's zone-read offense struggled mightily in 2013 as all of the Vols tried to learn a new attack. Now that many players have a year under the belts, the offense is starting to come together.
"You understand it better," Young said. "You know it like the back of your hand now."
The greater familiarity among the players creates greater flexibility among the coaches. Tennessee is doing a lot more things this spring than it did last spring.
"Yeah, Coach (Butch Jones) always says, ‘Put on your plate what you can eat,'" Young said, "so, as long as you show you can handle something, you'll keep growing your role."
Thanks to the addition of Hurd at running back, Pearson and Malone at wideout, plus two talented freshman tight ends, Tennessee's attack will have a new look this fall. Young says that isn't all that will be new, however.
"I'd say we'll look more explosive," he said. "You've got guys that are more used to the offense, the playing style. Things will look more natural."
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