Raijon Neal stands atop Vols' depth chart at running back
By STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Once he showed signs of overcoming his fumbling problem, Rajion Neal gained a stranglehold on Tennessee's tailback competition.
Now that he's won the job, Neal faces an even tougher task. How does he upgrade a rushing attack that ranked among the worst in college football last season?
"I definitely want to be a 1,000-yard rusher, but I want to do whatever it takes for us to win - and I know that's going to be us having a productive running game," Neal said.
One year ago, Tennessee's entire team barely reached the 1,000-yard mark.
The Volunteers averaged 2.8 yards per carry and finished a 5-7 season with 1,081 yards rushing, their lowest total since the 1964 team went 4-5-1 while running for 839 yards. Tennessee rushed for 90.1 yards per game last season to rank ahead of only Troy, Oregon State, Memphis and Miami (Ohio) among Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Those are humbling figures for any school, let alone one that sent All-Pro running backs Jamal Lewis and Arian Foster to the NFL.
"We keep it on our mind," Neal said. "We don't dwell on it, but we definitely keep it as motivation to keep us going."
The suspension of all-SEC wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers makes it particularly imperative for Tennessee to establish some semblance of a balanced offense as it prepares for its Aug. 31 season opener with North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome.
Tennessee's running game should get a boost from an experienced offensive line. Four of Tennessee's projected first-team linemen have combined for 83 career starts. The lone first-team lineman without previous starting experience is sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson.
But the Vols still need someone to emerge as a featured back. Neal will get the first opportunity.
Neal alternated between running back and wide receiver last year while gaining 269 yards receiving and 134 yards rushing. The junior from Fayetteville, Ga., entered preseason camp in a wide-open competition to replace Tauren Poole, the Vols' leading rusher each of the last two seasons.
Neal quickly emerged as a clear-cut choice.
In Tennessee's first scrimmage, Neal rushed for 134 yards on nine carries, including a 68-yard touchdown. Neal led the Vols with 47 yards rushing on eight carries in their second scrimmage. His steady performances impressed Tennessee coach Derek Dooley.
"It's hard for me to say one day he had a great practice and one day he had a bad one," Dooley said. "I couldn't identify his great practice or his bad one. He's been real consistent, comfortable in that role. He's produced every day. He's progressed in all his areas. I feel good about him."
Neal also believes he has solved the ball security issues that hindered him earlier. He has avoided fumbling in the preseason and credits his improvement to new running backs coach Jay Graham.
Graham, who spent the last three years on South Carolina's coaching staff, ran for 2,609 yards at Tennessee from 1993-96 and is the seventh-leading career rusher in school history. Neal's film sessions with Graham helped him realize where he had gone wrong.
"There were times I was doing too much," Neal said. "You've just got to know what to do and when to do it. When you get away from it, that's when you're running high, you're running loose and you're in places you're not supposed to be. That puts you at risk of putting the ball on the ground."
Neal has avoided those risks in the preseason while continually learning from his new coach.
"Every day, you have to work to get better," Graham said. "He has done that so far."
Neal still must prove he can deliver when it matters.
Although the presence of quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter assures Tennessee will remain a pass-oriented team even without Rogers, Neal's preseason effectiveness gives the Vols hope that they will run well enough to keep defenses honest. Neal's sense of urgency in winning this job indicates he can perform under pressure.
"The best comes out when you're pushed," Neal said.
In its futile attempts to run the ball last season, Tennessee usually got pushed around.
This year, Neal wants to make sure the Vols push back.
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