Rejuvenated Rajion

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Rajion Neal paused. He lifted an index finger to his chin, chewing on his thoughts for what felt like minutes. The words just weren't coming.

The Tennessee senior tailback was trying to describe his first few meetings with first-year running backs coach Robert Gillespie.

Standing beneath the shadow of a goalpost, Neal shifted his weight from foot to foot, like he was straddling a seesaw on a elementary school playground.

"Shocking," Neal finally managed.

The meetings certainly didn't go the way he imagined.

Neal is used to hearing how versatile he is. How his sharp cuts and vision makes him a worthy candidate for any NFL roster. He's used to compliments. "Coach Gillespie didn't come in here and tell me how good I look, how big I am or how fast I am," Neal said. "He told me everything I can't do or what he don't like."

Neal admits he wasn't sure how to take the criticism at first.

"It took lots of getting used to," Neal said. "You know, you call your mama and she say, ‘Oh baby, you great.' Or you call your dad or read a couple articles. Then coach Gillespie come here and say you ain't that good. Anyone can do what you just did."

But Neal is a competitor. Gillespie's brass didn't hurt his feelings. It put a chip on his shoulder. One he proudly wears every game.

The buckets of criticism have made Neal want to prove his coach wrong, which is one reason why he's more excited than ever for Saturday. He sees improvement handoff after handoff.

"He's not big on giving compliments and praise, I get that," Neal said. "But on game day that's when he's going to be our biggest fan and give us praise."

A lot has changed since those first meetings.

To start, Neal got used to Gillespie's prickly personality. But more importantly, Neal feels more prepared for a season than he's ever been before.

"(Gillespie) reinvented me, really," Neal said.

The reinvention was put on display Saturday.

Perhaps an earlier version of Neal doesn't torch South Alabama's defense for 169 yards, the most rushing yards a Tennessee tailback has pocketed since 2009.

With the clock winding down late in the third quarter, Neal received a give and darted to the right side of the line. A defensive lineman was planted in the hole. Maybe an earlier version of Neal reserves his field, trying to cut back against the grain.

Not this year.

Neal buried his shoulder into the defender's chest, dragging the would-be tackler with him for a gain of seven yards. On the next play, Neal scampered left for a gain of 13 yards.

"Last season, I don't think Rajion can handle a run like that," Gillespie said post-game.

Neal's reinvention hasn't gone unnoticed. Running mate Marlin Lane sees it everyday.

"He's more hungry this year," Lane said. "You know, just the look in his eyes and the his work ethic. I see him trying to get better every day."

Gillespie challenged Neal's mental toughness, his leadership abilities, physicality and more. He challenged everything. No rock went unturned.

And Neal couldn't be more thankful.

After all, Neal hears the clock ticking. His opportunities are numbered.

"It's scary to know at the end of the year, no matter what, I gotta leave," Neal said. "It's either play at the next level or go and get a nine-to-five (job)."

Each game is one closer to Neal's last in orange and white. He's focused on going out with a bang, and says Gillespie has coached him to do just that.

Neal said his goal is to rush for more than 1,000 yards. It's certainly realistic.

"I feel like a whole new player thanks to coach G," Neal said. "I feel like a whole new running back, like I can take on anything or any team or…"

Neal paused. This time mid-sentence. A smile scratched at his stare.

"But," he continued, "a compliment every now and then wouldn't hurt. Maybe one day."

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