Vols getting creative with Rajion Neal

Brent Brewer looks back at Tuesday's scrimmage and ahead to Saturday's

Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal (20), left, is tackled by linebacker LaDarius Denson (33), center, as defensive back Zach Allen (3) provides coverage during the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium Saturday, April 16, 2011.  White won the game 24-7 over Orange.

Photo by Adam Brimer

Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal (20), left, is tackled by linebacker LaDarius Denson (33), center, as defensive back Zach Allen (3) provides coverage during the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium Saturday, April 16, 2011. White won the game 24-7 over Orange.

As a receiver, Rajion Neal isn't quite on the level of Da'Rick Rogers.

Then again, Rogers wasn't exactly a steady threat at that position last year either.

Tennessee still needed a way to take advantage of the pure athleticism Rogers brought to the offense as a true freshman. So while he wasn't yet a technician running routes, the Vols got creative to put the ball in has hands with a variety of running plays that relied more on raw ability than veteran savvy — and that blueprint could come in handy as the coaching staff finds the best way to use Neal.

"I can definitely run intermediate routes and definitely line up on some linebackers and run deep routes on them, too," Neal said. "Definitely with the sweeps and fly-sweeps that can get me out in space, I feel that I could also be used that way."

That approach helped Rogers make an early impact even with some veterans keeping him from becoming a regular in the lineup, taking advantage of 16 rushing attempts to gain 117 yards while adding 11 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

Neal could be facing a similar situation as the race for carries in the backfield heats up with freshman Marlin Lane pushing for playing time behind Tauren Poole heading into the second scrimmage of camp tonight at Neyland Stadium. The addition of another viable option or two could create an enviable problem for the Vols as they try to divvy up touches for a handful of rushers.

If Neal happens to get squeezed some by Lane or Tom Smith, he already proved a year ago that he can be a threat in the passing game after seemingly perfecting the rail route as part of his seven-catch, 100-yard debut season — a role that only figures to expand.

"(Neal) brings a lot of versatility to the table," Rogers said. "He's fast, he's a fast guy and you can really move him around, bring him from the backfield and move him to receiver, take him from receiver and move him to the backfield. He can really do a lot of things, the coaches are really working on just getting him the ball in space and getting him out there.

"He's getting a lot more sweeps, some reverses. They're trying to work him in because he's a fast guy. If you can get him on the edge and get him going, he can really get out on some guys."

The Vols are looking hard at starting Neal closer to the edge than he's accustomed to as a tailback, though they definitely aren't doing it at the expense of developing him at his natural position.

The trick for the coaching staff and Neal is finding a balance between working at two different positions and the best way to get the football in the hands of a player considered to be one of the fastest on the roster.

"I know a lot about my running back position and am pretty much adjusted to that position," Neal said. "So they're focusing me just a little bit more on receiver so I can learn it.

"I didn't think it would be to this extent. I mean, I'm definitely still competing with (Poole) for carries, but also I feel they're putting me out wide in space to give me more opportunities to make plays and help this team."

Up to Speed: The offense isn't alone in trying to acclimate to the speed of the game again.

Brent Brewer admitted the defense was struggling to get its feet moving earlier in the week as well.

"We were a little rusty, gave up a few big plays, a few big runs here and there," Brewer said. "We have a lot of improvement to do.

"Just the speed of the game ... the first two or three series, you're out there tired. We're just trying to get our legs back under us and get the speed of the game back."

Energy Conservation: Both sides of the ball might have been guilty of saving some energy for tonight's workout, which was moved up two hours with the threat of storms to 5 p.m.

UT coach Derek Dooley obviously wasn't thrilled with the intensity of the last practice before the scrimmage on Friday, calling it a "bad" session after a couple good ones leading up to the weekend.

"It was the first practice I felt like we didn't come out here with the kind of mind-set we needed to get better as a team," Dooley said. "Guys were a little hurting and tired, but it doesn't matter. You've got to come ready to go. Mature, professional football teams come out every day.

"You can't have bad days. You've got to have good days and you've got to have great days."

Bumps and Bruises: Defensive tackle Malik Jackson remains on the shelf with a sprained right knee and will be out for at least another week or 10 days.

Wide receivers Matt Milton and Antonio Jones were both limited on Friday with minor issues and are day-to-day. Milton appeared to injure his abdominal area trying to make a catch on Thursday.

The Vols also monitored the workload for linebacker Greg King and defensive end Ben Martin during the second session of Thursday's two practices, though Dooley didn't report any new injuries for either veteran.

Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.

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Comments » 5

bjlong38326#239292 writes:

if neal can catch the ball &run the ball, why not let him return punts and/or kick offs.

CroKev writes:

Anybody heard anything about Tom Smith?

madcountyvol writes:

that's what i'm screamin bj, huh huh he said bj

volfanstuckingatorcountry writes:

haven't heard much about Milton this fall. anybody know where he's at on the WR depth chart?

givehim6 writes:

UT defiantly has the talent to move the ball down the field, but first we got to have a few good scrimmages to get the basics learned before they get to tricky, got to walk before you run.

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