Tennessee running back Rajion Neal knew a starting gig was up for grabs back in the spring.
Once he got his hands on it, he didn't let it go.
"You work hard always, but when you know it's wide open and everyone is going to get a fair shot at going out there and competing for it — the real competition begins then," Neal said Thursday morning, not long after learning he's slotted as UT's No. 1 running back on the team's official depth chart.
"I'm definitely happy, but know that there's still work to be done," he added. "I'm still in the process of proving myself."
In the open competition for the starting job, Neal got the edge on fellow backs Devrin Young and Marlin Lane after rushing for 100 yards on 15 carries in the team's first spring scrimmage in April. He never faltered, managing to make the spot his to lose.
UT coach Derek Dooley said Thursday, however, that Young is "going to play probably as much (as Neal)" and added that "(Lane) is still in the mix, too."
After finishing 2011 with the SEC's worst running game, Neal said experience will be the biggest difference between this year's UT attack and last year's. The Vols ranked 117th in the country in yards per carry — a paltry 2.76 — a year ago. Neal rushed for 134 yards on 27 carries — a 5.0 average.
"I definitely want to be a 1,000-yard rusher, but I want to do whatever it takes for them to win," Neal said.
In the spring, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney noted that Neal, "Needs to continue to work on ball security. … That's always been an issue with Rajion." On Thursday Neal boasted that he hadn't fumbled once in training camp or in the Vols' two summer scrimmages.
"It's by being more decisive," he explained. "There were times I was just doing too much. You've got to know what to do and when to do it. When you get away from that, you're running high, you're running loose and you're not where you're supposed to be. That puts you at risk of putting the ball on the ground."
* While the Vols have lost star wideout Da'Rick Rogers for disciplinary reasons, Mychal Rivera's full return to the passing game was welcome news. The Vols' starting tight end traded in his do-not-touch red jersey with one week remaining until the opener against N.C. State.
"Physically I'm 100 percent going into this game — I'm ready," Rivera said.
The senior said he's "been able to do everything these past four or five practices" after getting hit in the side of his left knee in one of the first practices of training camp.
* Other than the glaring absence of Rogers, Dooley's depth chart delivered few surprises.
Both Michael Palardy and Matt Darr are listed as the Vols' starting punter, while Palardy, who made nine of 14 field-goal attempts in 2011, retained kicking duties.
Speaking of sharing duties, sophomore Justin Coleman and senior Marsalis Teague are both slotted at left cornerback. Likewise, the strong safety position is listed as a toss-up between juniors Byron Moore and Brent Brewer.
Cody Blanc, a freshman from Knoxville Central, snuck into a backup wide receiver spot with Rogers' departure. The 6-foot-3, 202-pound wideout is listed behind Justin Hunter.
* Dooley has touted UT as a deep, experienced team throughout the spring. Rogers' suspension changes that perception.
Now, the Vols can claim only 20 combined career starts between their starting quarterback, running back and No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers.
UT's remaining returning wide receivers — Hunter and Zach Rogers — have combined for 31 career catches for 503 yards and three touchdowns. Dooley's returning roster as a whole caught 102 passes last year — just 35 more than Da'Rick Rogers pulled in by himself.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn