Coach's criticism inspires Tennessee's Rajion Neal

Tennessee running back Rajion Neal (20) leaves two Missouri defenders on the ground as he scored during the second half at Neyland Stadium Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012.  UT lost in four overtimes by 51-48. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2012

Tennessee running back Rajion Neal (20) leaves two Missouri defenders on the ground as he scored during the second half at Neyland Stadium Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. UT lost in four overtimes by 51-48. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Know your Vols: Rajion Neal on his senior year and locker room dance battles

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's Rajion Neal is coping with a bruised ego a year after an injured ankle ended his quest to become the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher.

Neal attributes his attitude to new running backs coach Robert Gillespie, who is toughening Tennessee's most experienced offensive playmaker by pointing out all of his shortcomings. Neal says that constructive criticism "puts a chip on your shoulder" and inspires him to work harder.

"He puts a chip on your shoulder," Neal said. "He kind of keeps it real uncut and raw, no sugarcoating, no rubbing me the right way and making me feel good. It's truly what everybody potentially may really feel or think about me."

Gillespie simply considers that part of his responsibility.

Neal and running back Marlin Lane are two of the only proven skill-position players on a Tennessee offense breaking in a first-year starting quarterback and a new receiving corps. That makes it essential for Gillespie to get the best out of them.

"My job is to coach, critique and correct," Gillespie said. "None of that's fun. My job is to find one thing for you to get better at, and once you get better at it, I'll find the next thing that you've got to get better at. It's not my job to be the fan.

"You have Twitter, Facebook, you guys to tell them how good they are. My job is to coach them. My job is to always find ways to make them better. When I do that, they'll respect me more and more. It's not about trying to gain friendships. It's about making those guys the best football players they can be."

Gillespie said he didn't watch much film of what these running backs accomplished under a previous staff last year, when Neal rushed for 708 yards and five touchdowns. He looked at what they were doing at the start of spring practice and saw plenty of room for improvement.

"He tells me I'm stiff, I can't block," Neal said. "He says I'm not fast. He pretty much told me I'm not a good tailback."

Neal's early season performance last year suggested otherwise.

Five weeks into the season, Neal ranked second in the SEC with 460 total yards rushing and fourth in the league with 92 yards rushing per game. But he injured an ankle Oct. 13 in a 41-31 loss at Mississippi State, sat out Tennessee's next two games and wasn't as effective upon his return.

Neal couldn't help but wonder what he might have accomplished if he'd stayed healthy.

"Honestly, I thought about it a lot," Neal said. "It hurt. (There was) a lot of curiosity. But at the end of the day, when Gillespie came in, he said, 'Don't worry about that. That was nothing, what you did. Anybody could do that. Let's come in this year, reinvent yourself, knock down the old stuff and let's build on something with a different blueprint.' "

Neal says Gillespie constantly reminds him to develop into a more physical runner. Gillespie also preaches the importance of doing the little things and taking care of responsibilities in pass protection.

"I tell our backs all the time, you may touch the ball 20 times at most," Gillespie said. "What are you going to do the other 60 plays in a game? I think that's what makes backs great, not just when you touch the ball, but the way you carry out your fakes, the way you chip block. I think that's the part they're starting to understand. We hold them to a really high standard."

Slowly but surely, Neal is starting to live up to that standard. Tennessee coach Butch Jones says he has noticed a difference in Neal recently.

"I see a level of intensity," Jones said. "I see a level of confidence because I think he knows he's worked exceptionally hard."

Lane says he believes Neal is hungrier this year as he enters his senior season. Neal's eager to prove his worth to the new staff while ending his college career on a winning note after three straight losing seasons.

"It's scary to know at the end of the year, no matter what, I've got to leave," Neal said. "It's either playing at the next level or going to get a 9 to 5. There's no going back."

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 9

johndavid writes:

NEAL doesn't have "it". COBB, Stewart, Henry, Stephens, K. Davis, Howard, Poles, Morgan, Bryson, Webb , Patterson etc... Usually at least one on roster has it, Lane might have some of "it" , I hope Hurd has alot of "it" !

bUTch__please writes:

Coach Gillespie is right as rain. Keep drilling down into the coaching and play with passion Rajion, you'll have a season no one will ignore.

johndavid writes:

Don't get me wrong , I wish he had "it" !

Maybe, he's found some of it.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to johndavid:

NEAL doesn't have "it". COBB, Stewart, Henry, Stephens, K. Davis, Howard, Poles, Morgan, Bryson, Webb , Patterson etc... Usually at least one on roster has it, Lane might have some of "it" , I hope Hurd has alot of "it" !

I think I get your meaning, but all those guys you mentioned had different forms of "it". Neal is probably bigger than some, faster than some, stronger than some, etc., and also less so than them in some ways. The thing is, for now he is probably the best we've got, and while I might agree that he needs to kick it into another gear to be all that the team NEEDS him to be, I think he will turn some heads this year if he stays healthy. Of course, that is the main thing with almost any RB, including some on your list.

slb1zellwood#1421797 writes:

Just run North and South and behind your pads young man and you will be just fine.

GerryOP writes:

OK guys, it's time to stop looking backward and start looking forward. I don't think any player should take any criticism for the last four years. We may have some of the same players on the team, but we have new coaches, a new philosophy, and new ways of inspiring these kids. Does Jones have the answers? We won't know until they play a few games. Maybe we will not know until the season is over. But, what we do know is that everything we have heard about the team is new. Let's hope it is also better.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to GerryOP:

OK guys, it's time to stop looking backward and start looking forward. I don't think any player should take any criticism for the last four years. We may have some of the same players on the team, but we have new coaches, a new philosophy, and new ways of inspiring these kids. Does Jones have the answers? We won't know until they play a few games. Maybe we will not know until the season is over. But, what we do know is that everything we have heard about the team is new. Let's hope it is also better.

Good post. I love the way this whole staff keeps drilling down on players to find their weaknesses and constantly encourages them to be better. To a man, they seem to combine a capacity for consistent, constructive criticism with the encouragement and instruction players need to have the confidence to perform even better than they thought they could. Small positive changes in every player at every position can add up to vastly improved team play. Except for the relative handful of proven stars in the game, the overall success of a team depends on the majority of "non-stars" doing the routine things right all the time. When they do that, "stars" seem to emerge from teams that didn't think they had any.

STLVOLS writes:

After the Missouri fiasco in Knoxville last year, we Vol grads/fans here in St. Louis area would appreciate a win in Columbia, MO in November.

GerryOP writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Good post. I love the way this whole staff keeps drilling down on players to find their weaknesses and constantly encourages them to be better. To a man, they seem to combine a capacity for consistent, constructive criticism with the encouragement and instruction players need to have the confidence to perform even better than they thought they could. Small positive changes in every player at every position can add up to vastly improved team play. Except for the relative handful of proven stars in the game, the overall success of a team depends on the majority of "non-stars" doing the routine things right all the time. When they do that, "stars" seem to emerge from teams that didn't think they had any.

Hey john, whatever these coaches are doing with these kids seems to be working. As you know, I have the highest hopes for Jones and the boys. The proof will come when we see how thay bounce back after a tough loss.

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Features