KNOXVILLE — His seniority and location on the depth chart mean Rajion Neal holds the first spot in line when Tennessee's running backs prepare to do a drill.
It makes him a guinea pig of sorts, too.
The Volunteers have a new running backs coach in Robert Gillespie, and the former Florida tailback has his own way of doing things.
And Neal is the first to try it out.
"Coach Gillespie is no joke," the Vols' top rusher from last season said after Saturday's first spring practice, which came eight days after Tennessee hired Gillespie away from West Virginia. "He's real. He wants it his way, right now, to the T, but at the end of the day we've seen it makes a big difference from the film we watched from what the other guys did who ran the offense.
"The little things really do matter and take this offense to the next level."
It's those little things Gillespie himself must learn on the fly after joining the Vols' staff as the replacement to Jay Graham, the former Tennessee tailback who surprisingly left for Florida State.
"It was shocking," Neal admitted, "because we didn't see it coming. We were notified the same day that it happened after practice, so it was shocking. We didn't know what to think or why, but we all know it's a business and we know he did it in the best interest for him and his family."
Gillespie, 33, was familiar with Tennessee's program from his playing days with the Gators -- he played in four Tennessee-Florida classics from 1998 to 2001 -- and his time on Steve Spurrier's staff at South Carolina.
"You never know where life's going to take you, but I've always respected Tennessee," he said. "I've played some of my most competitive games and most competitive moments against this university, so to get the opportunity to come here and coach and be a part of it, it's definitely amazing. It's fun, and like I said, I can't wait to get out here and coach these kids."
Jones wanted a coach with great character, teaching ability and recruiting skill with ties to the SEC and the South. Gillespie has ties in Florida and South Carolina from his stops there and in Mississippi, his home state. It didn't hurt that he coached for some impressive offensive minds in Spurrier, Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State and Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia.
Yet it was the numerous calls he made to various high school coaches that stood out when Jones researched Gillespie.
"I say to them, 'Tell me the best recruiter. Who's the best recruiter that comes into your school?'" he said. "I kept hearing, 'Robert Gillespie, Robert Gillespie,' and then I'd say, 'Tell me why.' They would tell me all of the characteristics that we're looking for.
"On his interview, he came in [and] he brought a lot to the table right away with his experience and his different ideas of being in some very good offensive systems."
At West Virginia, Gillespie coached and recruited against Jones and many of his assistants at Cincinnati in 2011, including the Mountaineers' 24-21 win when the two programs met that year. When asked about the game, Gillespie joked that there were still some "sour feelings" about the game. Yet his time at West Virginia allowed him to have an interesting perspective on Jones' program.
"We went into that game respecting the style of football that Cincinnati played," he said. "Their defense, at the end of the play, there were 11 guys in the picture. On offense, same deal -- there were 11 guys in the picture.
"As a coach on the other side of the field, you respect those guys, and now that I'm here I'm able to see it on tape. They play with maximum effort. At times they did a lot with a little, and the exciting thing is here is we have more to work with.
"If we can get these kids to understand the standard we want them to play at, the Tennessee standard -- if we can play that way with these kinds of athletes -- we have a chance to win a championship here, and that's the exciting part."
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 ...