On more than one occasion, Rajion Neal has passed his fellow running backs coming to or from extra film studies.
"We've definitely been studying more film. I can definitely say that. I've come in and watched film. I've seen some of my other running backs leaving from watching film. Coach (Jay) Graham has given us little pointers and key tips on helping us breaking tackles," Neal said. "Skinnying through guys, just bettering the offense with us running the ball. Hitting the line of scrimmage hard. I feel like everybody is coming in and trying to soak in and take what coach Graham has, especially with him being a running back."
In the Vols' opening scrimmage of spring camp last Friday, Neal set the pace as Tennessee's tailbacks passed by their defensive counterparts en route to a productive day running the football. Neal set the tone with 100 yards on 15 carries, but the junior from Fayetteville, Ga., said he wants more going forward.
"Honestly, I would say it was an OK day," Neal said. "I would say there's more I could have done, but overall it was a productive day. I'm satisfied with that for that day, but I expect way more and hope to get way more."
Tennessee's tailbacks have set forth some lofty goals for the 2012 season, perhaps most notably a desire to average a whopping 7 yards per carry after mustering less than 3 per carry during their miserable 2011 campaign. In the scrimmage opener, UT's backs averaged better than 5.5 yards per carry according to unofficial stats supplied by the school's sports information department.
Midway through camp, Neal has shown the most progress in his return to full-time running back after also working last season at wide receiver, coach Derek Dooley said.
"It's good to have that kind of production. I say we're not day-trading, but we're moving guys around because we're trying to evaluate them. Rajion is having a really good spring, and he just needs to keep going," Dooley said. "He's playing a lot faster, he's playing with a lot more physicality and his numbers reflected that."
Neal complimented the running of a number of players, including both Lane and Devrin Young, who led the offense Friday in all-purpose yards. The 5-foot-8, 171-pound Young said he approaches every day with something to prove,
"The competition is high. You've got Rajion, Marlin, Tom. Everybody's just out there trying to bring their A-game," said the former Knoxville Bearden All-State standout, "and you've definitely got to stay on top of yours."
"I've just got to make plays and miss out on the mistakes."
Versatile out of the backfield and on special teams, Young believes his varied skill-set gives him an advantage for getting on the field.
"Yeah, definitely, because when we've got someone like Marlin or (Neal) in the backfield, I can be somewhere else doing something - running in the slot or just anything," said Young, who had an instant impact last season on special teams after returning from a broken collarbone.
With the offense's continued emphasis on an enhanced ground game, Neal cautioned against reading too much into the opening scrimmage and noted with Graham's tutelage more improvement is expected.
"It does [help to know the commitment to running is there], and over time I feel it will come. It was our first scrimmage. The guys are working hard," Neal said. "Us as a tailback room, we're competing and I feel we're just going to get better and better as coach Graham keeps coaching us, going over the film, showing us the cut-ups. Giving us those little bit key points and techniques that we need to separate us from getting tackled or breaking a tackle to scoring touchdowns."
For the last six weeks, junior guard Zach Fulton has watched his fellow linemen from the confines of an exercise bike, frustrated as he battled through a stress fracture in his right leg.
"It was pretty tough," Fulton said. "I was over there on the bike wishing I was with my guys. It was really the last six weeks that I was out. It was tough seeing them running and I wasn't out there to train with them. It was hard for me."
Tuesday, sporting a wrap on his lower right leg, Fulton took to the practice field for the first time this spring to battle friend and roommate James Stone for the right guard spot.
"Right now, I'm working with the ones and the twos," Fulton said. "I'm splitting time with James (Stone).
"I'm pretty confident (in winning the right guard spot). Me and James are competing for the spot and I have no problem with that."
What Fulton does have a concern with is sprints. It was a series of sprints that shelved Fulton for over a month.
"We were running six 300s that day, and it was on the last 300, I was like right there ... and I just heard a pop in my leg, so I just started walking. And then I was out. I guess, you know, big men are not really meant to run 1,000 yards every day, but it is what it is." Fulton said with a smile.
"It was the last one. It was in the last 50 yards."
Fulton's return to the practice field was welcomed by several teammates, with Neal saying Fulton's impact is obvious.
"It's always good to get big Zach back up there. That's a grown man that loves to go in there and throw them 'bows," Neal said. "It's exciting to see him back out there and can't wait to see him get
integrated back in. We've got a lot of talent up there on the o-line, and it's exciting. I can't wait."
Justin Worley not only is trying to maximize his role in the Vols' offense, but the sophomore quarterback also is adjusting to life as the team's new holder on kicks.
"I held a little bit in high school, but never for a lefty," Worley said. "Me and Michael (Palardy) have been working hard. We stayed after practice today and have been working. I'm excited about that."
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