KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee will need better production from its tailbacks this season.
It's up to a former Volunteer to try to make that happen.
Jay Graham, the oldest of the Vols' new assistant coaches and a former UT tailback, is the first full-time running backs coach under Derek Dooley, and after the spring-practice initiation, Graham will have more time to develop UT's backs when preseason practice begins in roughly one month.
At least when that time arrives, there will be more familiarity between Graham and his players.
"I think they understand that I want them to be successful, and that's important to me," Graham said. "They know that I care about them, and I think that's a part of it. I'm doing this for them and for all of us. We do it for each other, and I think they understand that.
"I think they think I'm a straight-shooter. I'm not going to tell them something that's not right or try to deceive them. I tell them, 'Hey, you see who you are on film, and I see how I coach by how you play on film.'"
The film from last season wasn't pretty, though the cast competing for touches in the backfield features two new faces next to Marlin Lane. The Vols were last by far in the SEC in rushing yards per game, and the entire offense shared the blame. Like the offensive line, the backfield has a new coach and a different attitude.
That's not to say it was an easy spring for Lane, Rajion Neal and Devrin Young. Graham might not be the most intense or intimidating coach, but he's demanding. Fumbling during drills required a sentence of 10 up-downs.
"He's not the type to yell at you all the time," said Lane, who was UT's second tailback last season as a freshman. "If you do something wrong, he just corrects you and lets you know not to do it again. If you keep doing it, he'll just have you keep starting over until you get it right."
The group, as a whole, is unproven. Injuries and inexperience caused Lane to struggle last season, fumbling issues have plagued Neal's career and durability serves as the main concern for Young, UT's punt and kickoff returner. Alden Hill, Davante Bourque and Quenshaun Watson are freshmen.
Lane and Hill, an early enrollee who missed nearly all of spring practice with mononucleosis, have been limited during June's summer workouts with arm injuries, leaving Neal and Young the chance to seize an opportunity without the pads. Bourque and Watson are just now arriving to campus. The focus for all of them, whether it be spring, summer or fall, is breaking tackles.
"He stays on us every day about being physical and delivering the blow," Lane said. "He's hard on us with the little details because we mess up on little things. He just stays on us that if we correct the little things, more positive plays will happen."
Though Graham is Dooley's first titled running backs coach in three seasons, the backs had a de facto position coach the past two seasons. Chino Fontenette was a graduate assistant who was Dooley's running backs coach for two seasons at Louisiana Tech. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said any comparisons would be "unfair" but did give an assessment.
"I think Jay's done a [heck] of a job with those guys," he said. "They understand the direction we're trying to go. Jay does a very good job giving them specific things to get better at day to day. I thought Chino did a solid job, too ... but I'm really pleased that Jay's with us."
The players have noticed a difference with Graham and appreciate that he once was in their shoes.
"There's there's things that he tells us before we even see it," Neal said. "It's great to see things on the field and come back, relay it to him and he completely understands and knows what we're talking about. He demands a lot, but he makes the game fun because he makes it a competition [because] he wants us to succeed.
"With him being a [former] running back, he knows how it feels and he knows how we feel."
With the talent at quarterback and receiver, UT likely can score points without running for 200 yards every Saturday. But the Vols will need a more reliable and consistent running game in certain spots during games. Though they're not alone, the tailbacks will need to step up in those moments.
Graham is there to demand improvement and help them reach that point.
"Man, he's just helped me with my all-around game," Young said. "He's helped me with my fundamentals, and he's helped me with my reads. He's helped me with seeing things differently from a coach's aspect that makes me more of a student of the game.
"Coach Graham don't play, but at the same time, he's right there with us. We feel like we've got somebody right there that's with us every step of the way. That'll help us."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...