Dooley's four phases of bowl preparation
If anything, Tennessee freshman tailback Rajion Neal is self-aware.
Asked to explain a November to forget, one that included a fumble against Memphis, a number of negative gains and the eventual loss of his backup role to Tauren Poole, Neal echoed the same answer coach Derek Dooley and his closest mentor provided on separate occasions.
"That freshman wall," Neal said after Tuesday's practice in just his second interview with the Vols.
"That kind of knocked me down, and I didn't see it coming. It kind of just threw me off a little bit."
After not even seeing the field in UT's final two games, Neal is back on track, his coaches said throughout the week. That's fortunate for the Vols, as Neal likely would have been called upon in Nashville for the Music City Bowl against North Carolina next Thursday (TV: ESPN, 6:30 p.m.) no matter what.
Though sophomore David Oku finished the season on a relatively high note as he took over Neal's job, his status for the bowl game remains uncertain, as he returned to practice Wednesday after missing a week because of two family funerals.
"(Neal) had a real good mini-camp," Dooley said. "He's getting better, so hopefully he'll be back to form and ready to back (Poole) up."
Neal was more than ready to do that throughout the first half of the season.
He carried the ball nine times for 79 yards in a season-opening rout against UT Martin and then found a niche as a receiving threat out of the backfield against tougher competition. He hauled in a 58-yard reception that set up a touchdown against Georgia and picked up a 26-yard gain on a similar rail route two weeks later against Alabama.
Meanwhile, Oku had been all but forgotten because of the seemingly unflappable freshman from Tyrone, Ga.
"He came on real early, flashed fresh legs coming off the summer," said graduate assistant Chino Fontenette, who works heavily with UT's running backs. "And then he kind of hit that wall."
Off the field, it's tough to pinpoint when exactly the grind of schoolwork and time management got the best of Neal. On the field, Neal's production dropped dramatically starting against South Carolina at the end of October, when he mustered just 16 yards on six carries. The next week, against a Memphis team that had a tough time stopping anyone all season, he carried the ball four times for 14 yards and fumbled.
He received four carries in garbage time against Ole Miss and failed to gain positive yardage. When Oku hauled in a rail route and took it for a long gain the following week against Vanderbilt, Dooley showed little hesitancy addressing the apparent change on his tailback totem pole, saying Oku "let Rajion know he's not the only one who can catch a rail route."
"It was just mental," Neal said. "I was doing a lot of thinking, always worried about what I was going to do. Hoping I wasn't doing it wrong."
Still under 30 years old, Fontenette was an easy coach for Neal to approach when everything seemed to be going wrong.
And Fontenette had no trouble sympathizing with Neal when it came to the overwhelming pressure he was feeling not only as a freshman tailback, but a freshman student. The relationship, though, didn't go without a few visible sessions of tough love on the practice field.
"I have to sit him down sometimes and say 'Look, it's going to be OK,' " Fontenette said. "A couple of times he shut it down, but since we started this bowl preparation, he's grown tremendously and responded to different kinds of coaching."
Perhaps no one on UT's roster was more ready for the pro-style schedule that is allowed during bowl practice than Neal.
The grind of fall semester behind him, Neal has had a one-track focus on regaining his role as Poole's No. 2.
"I'm trying to make a statement while Dave's not here," Neal said Tuesday, when Oku still had not returned. "I'm definitely working hard to try and get some of these reps here in the Music City Bowl."