KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The cast on Marlin Lane's left hand symbolizes how much the Tennessee running back has grown up over the last year.
This time a year ago, Lane was missing the latter part of spring practice for disciplinary reasons. Now he's earning raves from the same coaching staff that had punished him a year earlier.
Lane has won respect for continuing to practice despite injuring his hand last month. Tennessee coach Butch Jones says Lane ''has been a warrior for us.''
''I've always said if there's nothing broken in my legs that's going to stop me from running, I'm going to keep playing,'' Lane said.
Lane's presence provides senior leadership for a team lacking upperclassmen at the skill positions. Lane has rushed for 1,192 yards and six touchdowns over the last two seasons and averaged at least 5.3 yards per carry each of those years. The Volunteers are counting on Lane to help replace Rajion Neal, who rushed for a team-high 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
''Marlin Lane has been a model of consistency. ... He's focused like a senior should (be) in our football program,'' Jones said.
He's come a long way over the last 12 months.
Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie said he noticed the difference in Lane as soon as last season ended. Gillespie said he spoke with Lane and pointed to the banners in Tennessee's indoor practice facility that signify each of the Vols' division and conference titles.
Gillespie noted that Tennessee hadn't put up a banner since its 2007 Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title. Gillespie told Lane to envision a future scenario in which he brings his children back to campus and they see those banners and ask when he played. Gillespie then asked Lane what kind of mark he wanted to leave on the program.
''I think those are the conversations we've had that he understands, 'Right now, my time is coming to an end. I want to be a guy when I leave here, people miss me when I come back in the building.''' Gillespie said.
Lane still faces plenty of competition for carries. Tennessee has added freshman running back Jalen Hurd, who was rated as a five-star recruit by Rivals.com. Tennessee's backfield also should get a boost from senior Devrin Young, who has returned to the backfield this spring after playing wide receiver last fall.
That may help explain why Lane wanted to keep practicing even after he got hurt. Lane also has a greater sense of urgency now that he's entering his final season at Tennessee. He's impressed coaches with his ability to catch the ball and block even with one hand in a cast.
''I don't think it's slowing me down a bit,'' Lane said.
Lane says he stayed on campus during the winter holidays to get himself in the right frame of mind before spring practice. After playing at 205 pounds last season, Lane says he's up to about 216 as he attempts to become a more physical runner, something Gillespie had recommended.
''His attitude is totally different,'' Gillespie said. ''He comes in the office, he bounces around the building. He's confident now.''
That represents quite a change for someone whose future with the program seemed in question a year ago. Lane credits his coaches and teammates for encouraging him as he worked his way toward getting reinstated to the team last year. Lane says he's grown from the experience.
''The goals I set for this year are just to stay looking forward and never look back,'' Lane said. ''If I do something wrong, just snap and clear. If I do something good, snap and clear and just move on to the next thing - in life or on the field.''
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