Tennessee Stat Book
Given such a small sample size and considering the opponents, Tennessee still doesn’t know exactly what it has in Rajion Neal.
It’s not going to waste any time trying to find out more about the true freshman running back though.
With or without a healthy Tauren Poole in the backfield, Neal figures in coach Derek Dooley’s game plan more heavily this week. And getting a feel for what he can do against tougher competition won’t be a problem against No. 12 LSU (4-0, 2-0 SEC) and one of the stoutest defenses in the nation on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.) at Tiger Stadium.
“We’ve got to get the young buck going a little bit,” Dooley said. “We’re going to play Rajion, we’re going to give him some touches and see how he handles it.
“Every back is different when they’re a freshman, and I’ve coached a lot of freshmen. Some backs come in with a different tempo, a different mindset than others. Rajion has been good, he’s been good. But getting him to understand the pace and getting him to understand the physicality of running the football in this league, it’s a little bit of learning.”
The best way to learn is by doing it, and the opportunity is there for Neal after impressing again in limited action last week against UAB. The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder only had four carries in relief of Poole and David Oku in a double-overtime win, but one of them went for 11 yards and he finished with 20 to give UT (2-2, 0-1) a second encouraging performance to evaluate.
Neal debuted with nine attempts for 79 yards in a season-opening blowout of UT Martin, but against stiffer competition over the next couple weeks he barely even stepped on the field. So that’s left the Vols really without an idea of what kind of impact Neal can have early in his first year with the program, but that’s obviously about to change.
“I was excited for him to get in there,” UT quarterback Matt Simms said. “I looked over at him on the sideline right as he was about to go on the field with us (last week), and I was like, ‘You ready, little man?’ … He just ran out there and he didn’t look nervous at all. It’s pretty amazing, these freshmen. They take the field and they act like they’ve been there forever.
“He’s a really good runner. He reads his blocks very well. The coaches get on him because they want him to run a little bit harder at times, and kind of lower his shoulder and finish runs the way that Tauren and David do. But it’s tough for him because he’s so young, he’s just trying to see stuff instead of just finishing it. That’s going to come with time and with more reps, and he’s going to get more reps this week. He’s got to be ready.”
How much work Neal might need to be ready for is contingent on the health of Poole, who was limited against the Blazers and again in practice early in the week with a thigh issue. It’s also partially tied to what the Vols can get out of Oku, who’s shown occasional flashes of being a productive back but has also appeared hesitant with the football at times.
That sort of uncertainty also appears to have been the biggest hurdle for Neal in getting more action over the last couple weeks, and if it’s a problem against the Tigers, he’s probably not going to get very far.
But the Vols are curious to find out firsthand.
“They’re used to gliding and making guys miss and you can’t do that up here,” Dooley said. “You’ve got to make your cuts and get those pads down and bull for some yards. You watch the freshman at South Carolina (Marcus Lattimore), that’s what he’s doing. He’s getting his pads down and he’s humming. He picked it up pretty quick.
“Everybody’s a little different, they go at their own pace. It’s not really an indicator of where they’ll be two or three years from now.”
UT can’t be entirely sure where Neal is in Year One until he gets more action. But that’s coming soon.