Big-play back

Rajion Neal

InsideTennessee's coverage of Vol football is the best you'll find. Check out this recap of Saturday's situational scrimmage:

After watching the second-team defense allow the second-team offense to march 98 yards in 14 plays – all runs – Tennessee's first-team defenders were determined to get off the field quickly as they took their positions in the Vols' first preseason scrimmage.

They succeeded, returning to the sidelines in mere seconds thanks to a 98-yard touchdown burst by senior Rajion Neal.

In case you're wondering … No, Sal Sunseri hasn't returned as defensive coordinator. Vol defenders didn't line up incorrectly or take bad pursuit angles. They say Neal deserves credit for hitting the hole decisively, making a great cut to the left sideline, then turning on the jets to complete a spectacular run.

"Rajion had a good scrimmage," free safety Brian Randolph said following the workout, held at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center after evening rains soaked Shields-Watkins Field. "He was very tough to tackle, had good balance. He's the one that got the big runs against the 1s (No. 1 defenders)."

Neal was understandably relieved to pop a big run. He carried 156 times in 2012, yet registered just two gains of 20 yards or more – a 29-yarder versus Akron and a 20-yarder versus Georgia. Given his impressive blend of size (5-feet-11, 212 pounds) and speed (4.36 over 40 yards), that's hard to fathom.

"I had my ups and downs but after the season I heard a lot (from the new coaches) about being more consistent finishing (runs)," he said. "As long as I'm able to finish and break tackles, I think a lot of good things will happen because upfront they're getting me started."

That's no recent development. The guys upfront – Tennessee's offensive linemen – gave Neal and fellow tailback Marlin Lane some good creases last fall. The backs simply failed to exploit the running room they were given. Neal recognizes as much after watching some film with Tennessee's O-linemen earlier this week.

"A lot of times a running back will miss a cut and think, ‘Oh, man, there wasn't nothing there,' Neal said. "Then you go in there (and watch the film), man, you'll see that they blew something up. They gave you a small crease, and we just missed it."

Neal said the blocking was so good on his 98-yard burst that he essentially had just one safety to beat.

"The O-line gave me a great start," he said. "A great push upfront left me with one block and one cut to make. Once I seen it, I took it."

Minus three-year starting quarterback Tyler Bray and two of the most dynamic receivers in program history – Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter – Tennessee's passing attack projects to be weak in 2013. That's why it is vital that the new quarterback can count on Neal to carry the offensive load in the early games. He relishes that responsibility.

"It feels great to know that you can take some of that pressure off him, leaving his mind clear to think through his progressions," Neal said of Tennessee's new quarterback. "He'll know that, if stuff hits the fan, he can turn around and hand it off and the O-line and myself can get him out of that hole and build a comfort zone around him."

Although his 98-yard run was the highlight of the scrimmage, Neal thought the preceding possession by the No. 2 offense against the No. 2 defense was the tone-setter for the workout.

"It was another coming-out – it actually was before mine – that sparked it," he recalled. "It was a 14-play drive – all runs by Alden Hill, Tom Smith and Justus Pickett. It was kind of unreal to see because, literally, every three plays those guys were breaking (a nice gainer).

"Alden got from the 2 (yard line) to about the 15, then Tom came in and broke his first play for about 20 or 30. He had another great cut, then Alden came in and finished it (with a two-yard TD run). It was crazy. Coach (Butch Jones) was calling out, ‘Keep running it. Keep running it.' That right there sent the whole scrimmage to a different level."

Given how inconsistent Tennessee's ground game was in recent years, seeing the running attack sustain a 14-play drive must have seemed a bit surreal.

"I mean they was coming downhill with it," Neal said, shaking his head emphatically. "It was crazy. I don't think nobody realized that not once did the quarterback drop back. He handed off the whole time and drove 98 yards."

Moments later, Neal tacked on another 98 with one memorable carry. Perhaps he finally is ready to become that big-play rusher Tennessee desperately needs, especially since opponents are likely to crowd the line of scrimmage and dare the Vols' suspect receiving corps to make plays.

"If they do I can truly say wholeheartedly that we've got a surprise for ‘em," Neal said. "Those receivers are not backing down. Those guys are getting better every day. As much as they get yelled at and as much criticism as they take, they're coming with it every day. It's kind of fun to see."

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