KNOXVILLE – The football Rajion Neal was carrying hit the frigid, hard artificial turf at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium during the third quarter of Tennessee’s rout of Memphis.
The moment was a symbolic for the Tennessee tailback, as the thud of the fumble signified his promising freshman season hitting rock bottom.
“After the Memphis game when I had that fumble,” Neal said after Saturday’s practice, “it just started going downhill because I was thinking about it too much. I was worried, I was always down on myself.
“But it took the bowl practice, going home (and) seeing my family for me to come back and just get all the way correct. That was what kind of helped me get through the rest of that season and this offseason.”
Neal ran just four times for 14 yards against Memphis and four times for minus-1 yards against Ole Miss the next week. He didn’t play in the Vols’ final two regular season games after emerging as the No. 2 tailback behind Tauren Poole.
The 5-foot-11, 208-pound rising sophomore got the rejuvenation he needed during the time between the end of the regular season and the start of UT’s practice for the Music City Bowl.
“The high point has to be those bowl practices,” said Neal, who ran an electronically timed 4.36-second 40-yard sprint this offseason. “Coming back from home, being fresh, being away for a minute – I definitely came back fresh (and) ready to go harder. That definitely gave me an opportunity to work myself back in, and I took that opportunity and ran with it.”
He ran nine times for 28 yards in the Vols’ loss, and though Neal ended his first year in Knoxville on an upswing, the season as a whole was disappointing for the native of Tyrone, Ga.
“I didn’t feel that I helped this offense as much as I could with my running ability, my catching (and) my route-running,” he said. “I didn’t feel I did as much as Tauren did and these receivers did. That’s because I was new to it, I wasn’t taking it serious and I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.”
UT’s backfield behind Poole remains in flux with David Oku’s transfer and the pending arrival of three incoming freshmen (Marlin Lane, Tom Smith and Devrin Young). Just as it is at other positions, this spring is a critical chance for Neal or Toney Williams to stake a claim to a spot on the depth chart before the reinforcements arrive looking to take those spots.
“Until you're an all-conference player,” UT coach Derek Dooley said, “it's hard to ever say that the spring isn't critical for you because every year the coaching staff usually is going to bring 20-25 new people who are expected to beat you out.
“The reality is we recruit to try to replace who we have no matter how good we get. Just like the NFL teams do, they draft. You get new guys every year trying to get your job. If you don't have that mindset, then it's hard to improve.”
Neal knows that, and he’s taking the steps of mastering the offense so he can play even faster than he did at times a season ago.
“I do have high expectations for myself to come out here and help this team and be a contributor,” he said. “(I) definitely (want) to let these guys know that when I’m out there they can have faith in me to do what I have to do and help this team win.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...