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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The American Football Coaches Association recently honored the 70 percent graduation rate of the Tennessee Vols’ football team.

But to at least one former Tennessee player and UT graduate, Eric Lane, there’s more to the recognition than meets the eye.

”The athletics department has done an incredible job in the area of academics,” Lane said. ”The Student Life program gets better and better, year after year.”

While a running back for Tennessee, Lane earned his bachelor’s degree and, as a fifth-year senior, started work on a master’s degree in public administration.

Lane, who now plays for the New York Giants, said he spent the off-season this year preparing to take the Law School Admissions Test.

”I still have a couple of courses to go on my master’s, but my real aspiration is to go to law school and become an attorney,” said Lane from his home in New Jersey. ”I took the law school test in June.”

The Vols have enjoyed a 70 percent graduation rate four out of the past 10 years. This June the Vols received one of 24 ”honorable mention” awards from the coaches association.

Northwestern University, with a 100 percent graduation rate, took the top honor. In the Southeastern Conference, other ”honorable mention” awards went to Florida, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.

”We are excited to receive the coaches association award,” said Carmen Tegano, UT assistant athletics director in charge of Student Life. ”The graduation numbers are a reflection of motivated student-athletes, dedicated support staff, and a faculty that understands the challenges student-athletes face.”

One of Lane’s teammates, Reggie Cobb, turned pro before getting his degree in urban affairs, but he is still pursuing his diploma.

Cobb’s academic progress is closely followed by Tyler Johnson, who directs a two-year-old program for the athletics department called ”RAC” for Renewing Academic Commitment.

”Reggie is very close to finishing up,” Johnson said. ”He will either graduate in August or December.”

Cobb, an NFL running back who played with several teams including Tampa, Green Bay, Jacksonville and the New York Jets, is a RAC participant. Other former Vols in the program include Aaron Hayden, Todd Williams, and Kevin Whitted.

Tegano and UT athletics director Doug Dickey started RAC to encourage former Vols to finish their degrees.

”The RAC program and our graduation rates in football reflect well on our commitment to classroom achievement,” Dickey said.

Johnson estimates that over the past couple of years he has had contact with 80 or 90 former Vols about returning to school.

”I help them figure out what they need to do to get back in and what courses they need to take to finish up,” Johnson said. ”If I don’t hear from them after a little while, I give them a call or drop them a letter or two of encouragement.

”Right now I would say we have 30 to 40 former athletes actually working on their degrees,” Johnson said.