KNOXVILLE — Rajion Neal wanted a way to push himself this summer.
Tennessee's starting tailback spot is wide open, and the junior needed an outlet in which to give himself the best chance of filling the vacancy.
So Neal decided to work out with teammates who weigh more than 100 pounds more than he does.
"I worked out with the offensive line a lot," he said after the Volunteers finished their first practice of training camp on a cloudy Friday afternoon. "I wanted more of a challenge. My schedule allowed me to do it, and I've heard that working them would be a great push.
"It'd give give me a time to bond with those guys and ... let them know how hard I'm working out for them."
Naturally, lifting and pushing more weight had a positive effect on Neal's own body. The 5-foot-11 Georgia native added five pounds of muscle and weighed in at 211. Left tackle Antonio Richardson, who's 6-foot-6 and 332 pounds, said Neal "pound for pound is a strong dude."
If Neal is to become the No. 1 tailback ahead of Marlin Lane, Devrin Young and any newcomer who might make a case this month, he'll need that increased strength. Position coach Jay Graham's main goal is to get the Vols' backs to run tougher.
Neal has been plagued by fumbling problems since his freshman season.
"I wouldn't say it was an issue this spring," coach Derek Dooley said. "But he has his moments, and one moment's too many as a runner."
Neal said has Graham "stayed in my ear" about the little details and tweaks from practice.
"We actually went and looked at the film," he said. "It wasn't so much ball security as my choices and my pad leverage. We just worked on keeping me low, worked on hand strength, ball drills and just focusing and learning and paying attention to the minor details."
A handful of details will factor into the Vols' tailback decision, and the competition will continue throughout camp.
"It's going to be difficult, and I'll tell you the reality is it's probably not going to happen until we start playing games," Dooley said. "You do things in practice, and we have a couple of good scrimmages that'll be a big evaluation for them, but it's probably going to take a few games to see who really will emerge.
"I'd like to say we have a guy that's a preseason Heisman Trophy guy, but we've got what we've got. We've got some good backs, and I'm excited about seeing who's going to emerge. Any coach who says I'm excited that I don't know who our running back's going to be is probably lying."
Neal may be the most talented back among UT's options, but the competition is solid. Lane, UT's leading returning rusher, is back healthy following offseason knee surgery. Dooley said he doesn't view the diminutive Young, who doubles as the Vols' punt and kick returners, as a "specialist guy."
Each of the trio, though, has multiple areas in which to improve.
"Pass protection is a concern," Dooley said. "Then how can they generate yards after contact. Really that's it."
After splitting time at receiver as a sophomore, Neal welcomed focusing again on tailback. His speed always has been a reason the Vols have tried to find ways to involve him in the offense, yet the fumbles and hesitant running style held him back.
Neal believes his decision to change workout scenery is a sign of an increased commitment level.
"It just comes with age and maturity and being around these guys," he said. "It's time for a change, and it's time to change things that we were doing in the past. We thought it was something new and something we should try.
"I feel it turned out well and it's going to translate over. I want to prove to my teammates that I'm dependable and reliable. I want to show those guys I'm ready to work for them."
Snatching the starting spot would be nice, too.
"He was doing stuff on Saturdays when a lot of people were just resting," Young said, "and I feel like you guys are going to see a difference in him this year."
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 ...