Tennessee running back Marlin Lane (15) carries the ball during a game on Sept. 8, 2012, in Knoxville. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee running back Marlin Lane says his suspension during spring practice gave him a new appreciation for the game and his team.
Lane was suspended for disciplinary reasons that have never been specified. The junior from Daytona Beach, Fla., was reinstated this summer, but he didn't appear on the pre-training camp depth chart — an indication he had to regain the coaching staff's trust.
He's been trying to show how much he's changed since his reinstatement.
"I live my life like it's fourth-and-inches every day," Lane said. "It can be taken from me at any second. I just go out there and give it my all."
Lane worked out on the side with Tennessee's injured players Sunday after spending much of the last week wearing a green non-contact jersey, but Volunteers coach Butch Jones said it's just a precautionary measure. The Vols need Lane and Rajion Neal to form a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield as they attempt to end a string of three straight losing seasons.
With a first-year starting quarterback throwing to an inexperienced receiving corps, Tennessee's passing attack could struggle early in the season. Neal and Lane must be productive to take pressure off the passing game.
"In this league, you have to be able to run the ball," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "The better teams are the ones that can control the clock and move the chains. We do understand that we have one of the best offensive lines in the country. We have to be able to produce behind them. I challenge those guys. I constantly ask, 'Who's going to be the 1,000-yard rusher? Who's going to be the guy?' "
Lane once seemed far from being that guy. While Lane sat out much of spring practice, Neal solidified his position atop the depth chart. Lane wasn't reinstated to the team until June.
"It was very difficult," Lane said. "The whole team became a family. Being separate from them is being without my family. I just learned to appreciate what I've got."
But he didn't stay far away during his suspension.
Lane said that just about every day during that period he talked with Jones, Gillespie and even former associate athletic director David Blackburn, now the athletic director at Chattanooga.
"They just told me what you give is what you get, hold your head up high no matter what goes on," Lane said.
He's had a different attitude since his return.
"Marlin's hungry," Neal said. "He had ball taken away from him. They say you don't know what you have until it's gone. He truly realized in a matter of a second, ball could have been over for him. He came here with a different mind-set. He's excited. He's working. He's honestly happy to be around the guys. That's really what it's all about."
Lane and Neal now are eager to improve upon the effective combination they had formed last season. Neal ran for 708 yards and five touchdowns on 156 carries last fall. Lane rushed for 658 yards and two touchdowns on 120 attempts.
Neal rushed for 500 yards through the first half of the season before an ankle injury forced him to miss two games. Lane picked up the slack and ran for 473 yards through the second half of the season, exceeding the 100-yard mark against Missouri and Vanderbilt.
But instead of building on that late-season momentum, Lane ran into trouble this spring and had to earn his way to reinstatement.
Now that he's learned his lesson, Lane's ready to make amends.
"If you stare in the past, you're always going to be brought down," Lane said. "I'd rather keep moving forward."
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