October 2, 2012
Neal's wheels: Vol back pacing SEC
It wasn't just that Rajion Neal ran for an improbable 104 yards and to the top of the Southeastern Conference's carries leader board Saturday between the hedges at Georgia.
Tennessee's junior tailback sprinted right into uncharted territory with teammate and quarterback Tyler Bray, who implored coaches to eschew the pass and keep handing the ball to Neal.
"At one point in time, I got on the phone with (offensive coordinator Jim Chaney) and was like, 'Hey, keep running the ball. Don't stop,'" Bray said. "And it might have been the drive where we ran it every time until we scored."
Was that something Bray had ever asked before of his coaches?
"No, not at all," said the junior signal-caller.
Yet the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Neal, on the strength of back-to-back 100-yard outings, now is on pace to rush for more than 1,100 yards, and his 103 rushes are the most in the SEC. Neal enters the Vols' off week --- they next play Oct. 13 at Mississippi State --- after carrying the ball a combined 45 times in Tennessee's back-to-back games against Akron and Georgia.
Neal said Bray's belief in the running game late in the 51-44 loss at Georgia serves as validation for the entire ground crew.
"I almost feel that it is a compliment. It means that we are doing something right. It means that these guys have faith and believe in what we are doing and everyone is behind it," Neal said. "It feels good to know that our offensive coordinator wants to keep running and our quarterback is agreeing with him and saying he wants to do that. It is a compliment and it is exciting to hear."
Neal is averaging 102 all-purpose yards per game and owns eight pass receptions to go along with his 80 carries. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley points to Neal's newfound toughness as key to Neal's emergence.
"You can't have a good running back with a back not running the ball well. I think the last couple of weeks, (Neal) has probably broken more tackles and had more yards after contact than any of those earlier games," Dooley explained. "That's certainly a part of it. We've still got to get Devrin (Young) and Marlin (Lane) and Q (Watson) and those guys involved, too, because we need them all."
Bray also sees Neal adopting a more rugged approach on his runs.
"He's starting to understand that he needs to be physical," Bray said. "Before he was trying to be the little scat-back and trying to make all the moves. Now he knows he needs to be the downhill runner, and it's paying off for him."
While Dooley envisions more touches for all of his tailbacks, Tennessee's third-year coach admits Neal's versatility makes it tougher to remove him from games.
"Yeah, and we played him a lot. But it was about the right number of snaps. I think he had about 50 or so snaps," Dooley said of Neal's Georgia effort. "Touched it about 20 times I think. So that's good. That's a heavy workload right there, but that's 20 less snaps than what he got in the Florida game. I mean, 20 snaps is a lot."
If Neal is feeling fatigued, the Sandy Springs, Ga., native isn't admitting as much. After bouncing around from backup tailback to wideout and back to tailback, Neal is simply focusing on making the most of this leading role.
"I'm just taking my opportunity and running with it and soaking up everything I can," Neal said. "And just taking whatever coach (Jay) Graham gives me.
"The goals I set were pretty standard. Definitely just a thousand-yard rusher, being productive. I wanted to lead the SEC (in rushing)."
...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now for a FREE Trial