Projected to challenge 2010 starter Tauren Poole for the first-team job this preseason, Neal now finds himself also battling to stave off the frosh duo for the second-team job. Recognizing this, he vows to be back in pads as soon as a nagging knee sprain will let him.
"It's doing fine. It's just a minor setback," Neal said. "We're working at getting it stronger, getting it rehabbed so I can get back to the team as quick as I can.
"It's just a sprain. I'm definitely going to be back. I'm just excited to get healthy and be back with the team."
Watching Smith and Lane bid for playing time without getting an opportunity to counter was understandably difficult for Neal.
"Oh, man. It was tough," he said, shaking his head emphatically. "There was definitely some competition I was seeing out there. It definitely makes you want to get back healthy, definitely come back with a vengeance and help this team."
Knowing Smith and Lane are capable of contributing as freshmen won't help Neal sleep better but it should help him practice better.
"Competition is always good; it brings out the best in everybody," he said. "But seeing them out there made me want to hurry up and get back."
There have been encouraging reports about the rookie runners coming out of preseason camp, and Neal says those reports are accurate.
"They're good backs," he said. "Tom's a real downhill type of runner. Lane's a real smooth, patient back."
Head coach Derek Dooley has made no secret of the fact Tennessee's tailback corps needs to be a lot more consistent and productive in 2011 than it was in 2010. Neal is convinced it will be.
"I feel we have a very good group," he said. "Every runner brings something different to the table and we all can do something to help the team. We all have our little niche."
Asked to pinpoint his niche, Neal replied: "I'm smooth, I'm patient. I'm finesse. I'm looking, trying to see where everything is going."
Asked what Poole brings to the table, Neal answered: "Tauren brings high intensity. He's real angry on the field. He's more of a downhill runner. He's going to hit it."
Neal's role could be expanded this season. In addition to tailback, he's getting a lot of practice repetitions at slotback. This should increase his touches by making him more of a receiving threat.
"It's fun," he said. "I'm definitely out in space, making more plays. I'm getting more reps out there so I can learn it and have it become second nature. I went through a whole season, spring and summer at tailback, so I pretty much know that but there's still learning to be done in both areas."
What's interesting about Neal's work at slotback is the fact he had virtually no experience catching the ball during his prep days back in Fayetteville, Ga.
"In high school I didn't get too many catches," he said. "I only had a couple but I enjoy catching the ball and doing whatever I can to help my team."
Neal's determination to "help my team" should get him off the injured list soon, especially if Tom Smith and Marlin Lane continue their push to cut into his playing time.