KNOXVILLE — Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal didn't speak to the media after Saturday's game as the training staff took a look at him, but his play during the game said enough.
Neal rushed for 169 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown in the Volunteers' 31-24 win over South Alabama.
The Vols rushed for a total of 278 yards on 37 carries.
"Rajion Neal stepped up when we needed him to," coach Butch Jones said. "I really liked what he did. I thought he ran physical. He ran assertive, and he ran with great pad level."
Neal showed his speed on a career-long 53-yard run three minutes into the second quarter on a drive that ended in a 2-yard rushing touchdown by the other half of Jones' one-one tailback punch, Marlin Lane, who had a career-long 54-yard burst of his own in the first quarter.
Lane left the game after getting banged up during the second quarter, but Tennessee's running attack continued into the second half with Neal and Tom Smith. On the first play of the second half, Neal rushed to the left for a 22-yard gain, and he capped that drive with an 11-yard run for a touchdown.
Jones said Neal gave the team his best effort.
"He got the ball north and south," the coach said. "He gave us some big splash plays, and he took care of the football. He's been suffering from some aches and pains. I think he also learned how to play through some pain. I'm proud of him. I think he played his best game."
Neal's performance was the highest individual rushing total for a Vol since Montario Hardesty's 179-yard game against Kentucky in 2009.
Tennessee hasn't had a pair of backs rip off such big runs since the Phillip Fulmer era, when Travis Henry (53) and Travis Stephens (80) had big runs when they combined for 242 yards on only 23 carries in a 59-20 romp past Kentucky in 2000. Although the times have changed, the Vols still understand the importance of running the ball in the difficult Southeastern Conference.
"When we spit out some big runs, even just 8- or 9-yarders to make it second-and-2, it really opens up our offense," quarterback Justin Worley said. "It really helps with getting a good drive going."
The Vols' offensive line faced scrutiny after back-to-back losses at Oregon and Florida, but they stepped up against the Jaguars.
"Rajion did a great job," Worley said, "but it starts of front with the offensive line. They did a great job picking up the blitz. They created holes for both him and Marlin. I thought both of them ran the ball exceptionally well."
Contact Sam Gilbreath at firstname.lastname@example.org