Tennessee Stat Book
Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal readily admits to a number of glaring weaknesses in his game, ones that he constantly is attempting to overcome and improve upon after a disappointing freshman season.
Breakaway speed, however, is not one of them.
“Once I get out there in that secondary and I see what’s going on, I’m pretty much going to try to get to that end zone,” Neal said. “I most likely will get there the majority of the time.”
Neal did just that in Saturday’s first scrimmage of the spring. Three times.
Neal was one of the few bright spots for the offense at Neyland Stadium on a day that was dominated by the defense. He carried the ball 14 times for 152 yards and three touchdowns, accounting for the vast majority of yards in a rushing attack that coach Derek Dooley still wasn’t pleased with afterward.
It took a half of action and some screaming from coaches, but Neal and the rushing attack woke up in the second half, players said.
“It was just that they had so much excitement and so much enthusiasm and we was kind of still going through the motions, wasn’t fully in the scrimmage yet,” Neal said. “We definitely got that right in the second half. Gave the defense a good little run today.”
Dooley disagreed. During his post-scrimmage interview session, Dooley looked down at the piece of paper in his hand, read off starter Tauren Poole’s stats line — nine carries for 21 yards — and shook his head.
“That was disappointing,” Dooley said. “You know, if anything I was disappointed in, it was our ability to run the ball. I expected us not to throw it well because we hadn’t in the first six practices.”
Poole said Neal, who thrived early last season but struggled through the end, has had a better approach at practices this spring. Neal certainly has the speed — he said he recently clocked a 4.36 40-yard dash — and the ability to make plays in the open field, but maintaining a high level of confidence has been his biggest weakness.
After Saturday, that should be a little easier.
“We just got to keep a positive attitude,” Poole said. “When we mess up, that’s because we’re young. He gets down but he can’t get down on himself because he’s a young back, but he’s growing just like all of us.”
Defensive Domination: UT’s defensive players had a tough time fighting back smiles and maintaining stoic faces after Saturday’s scrimmage.
No matter who was talking, it was unanimous that the defense had the better day.
“The past few practices, the offense has really been running all over us and throwing on us,” linebacker Austin Johnson said. “We knew what was coming and I felt like that was what we did. Our D-line got a good push and we were able to make plays early.”
Defensive tackle Malik Jackson spearheaded a defensive line that helped account for five sacks and six quarterback hurries. Jackson had five tackles, three of which went for a loss, and a 10-yard sack.
“Malik’s our leader right now. He’s a senior,” defensive tackle Marlon Walls said. “When I don’t know something, I look over and check. He tells me what we got.
“We expect him to lead. He’s a great player.”
Safety Brent Brewer led the team with six tackles and an interception. Linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton had two sacks and an interception while cornerback Anthony Anderson returned an interception 81 yards for a touchdown.
“That kind of stuff brings a lot of energy to the team,” Johnson said. “And that’s what we need.”
Dooley reserved doling out much praise for the defense, which he said was “just kind of chugging along.”
“The (offense and defense) are probably both behind,” Dooley said. “I don’t know who we’re behind, but we’re not ahead of anybody.”
Crackback Quarterback: Quarterback Tyler Bray said it was much ado about nothing, but an apparent crack-back block he laid during a Neal run had a number of players, and his coach, buzzing after the scrimmage.
“It kind of hyped everybody up,” cornerback Marsalis Teague said. “We understand it’s football, but we got to mess with the quarterbacks by going out there and hitting because we can’t hit them.”
Walls, who identified the player Bray blocked as middle linebacker John Propst, said the defense retaliated with a big block of when Bray threw an interception later in the scrimmage.
“Hey, quarterbacks, we show no mercy,” Walls said. “When you’re out there hitting, everybody gets hit.”
Bray said he merely “stood in front of the guy and he happened to go down.”
“It could have been a lot worse,” Bray said. “I was just trying to free up Rajion.”
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble