SCRIMMAGE IN A BOX
Offensive star: Tailback Rajion Neal had 134 yards on nine carries, including a 68-yard touchdown.
Defensive star: Cornerback Marsalis Teague broke up four passes, and linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt combined for 19 tackles.
Quotable: "We can't hit him, but the refs ain't blowing the whistle for us. They just don't give us the calls. They like to see Tyler Bray throw the ball."
— Smiling defensive end Marlon Walls on why the Vols' defense had more than the four sacks for which they were credited.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — The increased commitment level that initiated those summer weightlifting sessions with his offensive-line teammates seems to have paid early dividends for Rajion Neal.
The junior tailback's performance in the Volunteers' first training-camp scrimmage Saturday jumped off the page of stats provided by UT.
Nine carries, 134 yards and a 68-yard touchdown.
"He ran great," coach Derek Dooley said after the Vols' 120-play afternoon at Science Hill High School's Kermit Tipton Stadium.
"He and Devrin [Young] have an ability when they get in space. They're both fast guys. Our job as an offense is creating that space for them -- that's when they play well."
Neal and Young, who added 62 yards on 10 touches with an 11-yard score, had a similar performance in a spring scrimmage, and the Vols have emphasized improving their ground game after finishing 116th nationally in 2011.
The line is working on developing a more physical attitude, and new backs coach Jay Graham is trying to instill the same in his runners.
"It starts with the offensive line," quarterback Tyler Bray said. "Those guys blocked tremendously today. We were real physical. In the past we've been not so physical, and today we really showed what we could do."
Neal said his long run came on a simple inside zone play on which the offensive line opened a huge cutback lane. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound Neal always had speed, but his running style wasn't particularly physical and he's had fumbling problems. If he could put it all together, he'd probably be UT's most talented back.
In the three-way preseason race with Young, the sophomore who doubles as the Vols' return man, and Marlin Lane, who ran eight times for 34 yards Saturday, Neal's strong scrimmage might give him some early separation, though Dooley prefers a two-back system.
"I'm happy, but I'm hoping we keep building on that," the coach said. "It wasn't surprising. I've said we have three guys who can help us win running the ball.
"We've got to do a good job around them of blocking and throwing the football. We're not going to line up with two tight ends, I-formation and pound people. We're not those kind of guys."
Dooley was referencing the Vols' potentially explosive pass game, which made noise of its own Saturday. Bray finished 18-of-31 passing for 189 yards and a 29-yard strike to Da'Rick Rogers, who had 105 yards on six catches. Backup quarterback Justin Worley, who Dooley said has had a "great camp," also was sharp, completing nine of his 15 attempts for 134 yards and touchdowns to freshman Cody Blanc and walk-on Jacob Carter.
The Vols drove for a field goal in the two-minute drill at the end of its scrimmage, and kicker Michael Palardy -- already good on kicks from 37, 35 and 31 yards -- was true from 48 yards.
"I think we looked pretty good [offensively,]" Rogers said. "We had a few mishaps: a couple of offsides, a couple of illegal shifts. Those are little kinks we're working out, but as a whole I think we played physical.
"We really played to our tempo because we wanted to play a lot faster, and I think we did that."
Dooley said the Vols mixed up their normal scrimmage routine to where the starting offense and defense weren't always against each other.
Regardless of the matchups, Neal had a productive afternoon, and he gave credit to the guys with whom he spent a number of summer workouts.
"Those guys up front gave me a great opportunity to come out here and have a good day," he said. "I'm playing for those guys. When I got here, we went through a lot of ups and downs, and these guys deserve the good publicity and they deserve folks to know that those guys are out here working it."
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 ...