KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal’s preseason goal to lead the Southeastern Conference in rushing may have seemed overly ambitious, considering the Volunteers had one of the nation’s weakest ground attacks last year.
The idea isn’t far-fetched anymore.
Five weeks into the season, Neal ranks second in the SEC in total rushing yards (460) and fourth in rushing yards per game (92.0). He already has 103 carries, 11 more than anyone else in the conference. He has exceeded 100 yards in each of his last two games, including a 104-yard effort last week in a 51-44 loss to No. 5 Georgia.
Neal has surprised just about everyone but himself.
Tennessee averaged just 2.8 yards per carry last season and finished the year with 1,081 yards rushing, their worst output since 1964. Troy, Oregon State, Memphis and Miami (Ohio) were the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs to average fewer yards rushing per game. Neal looked past those numbers and saw reason for optimism.
“I never had doubts in our o-line,” Neal said. “Never. Believe it or not, going back and watching the film, I feel it was on us (as running backs) a little bit kind of missing reads and being a little bit anxious. It was always there. We just had to take it and see it.”
Neal had rushed for 134 yards on 27 attempts last season while alternating between receiver and running back. He won Tennessee’s tailback competition in the preseason and almost lost the job after gaining only 53 yards on 22 carries in a season-opening 35-21 victory over North Carolina State.
He’s been a different player ever since.
“He’s starting to understand that he needs to be physical,” quarterback Tyler Bray said. “Before, he was trying to be the little scatback trying to make all the moves. Now he knows he needs to be a downhill runner, and it’s paying off for him.”
Neal attributes his success to a veteran offensive line that has allowed only two sacks all season. He also credits new running backs coach Jay Graham, who rushed for 2,609 yards at Tennessee from 1993-96. But there’s no doubt that Neal himself has played a major role in the Vols’ rushing revival.
“You can’t have a good running game with a back not running the ball well,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “The last couple of weeks, he’s probably broken more tackles and had more yards after contact than he had in any of those earlier games.”
Neal started his surge by rushing for 87 yards on 23 carries in a 37-20 loss to Florida. Neal had gained 66 yards by halftime, and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said afterward he may have abandoned the run too early in that game.
Chaney isn’t doing that anymore.
Neal followed up his Florida performance by rushing for a career-high 151 yards on 22 attempts in a 47-26 victory over Akron. When Georgia focused on containing Tennessee’s high-powered passing attack last week, the Vols handed the ball to Neal or Marlin Lane on the last six plays of their final scoring drive.
“My big guys up front took advantage of it and took that opportunity to blow them off the ball when they were sitting back trying to play the pass,” Neal said. “I definitely feel they tried to cheat a little bit and kind of sit back in that coverage, but when they did that, Coach Chaney did some good play-calling to attack them by running straight downhill.”
Neal’s job could get tougher the rest of the season.
Opposing defenses will probably respect the threat of Tennessee’s rushing attack more now. Neal’s workload also might catch up to him. The only other SEC players with as many as 70 carries are South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore with 92 and Arkansas’ Knile Davis with 82.
Neal, a 5-foot-11, 211-pound junior, believes he can continue carrying the ball 20-plus times a game. He said Graham has spaced out his opportunities in such a way that he doesn’t run out of gas in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee’s off week gives Neal a chance to rest before the Vols return Oct. 13 at No. 20 Mississippi State, a team he almost joined. Neal was committed to Mississippi State for over five months before switching to Tennessee the week before signing day.
“I’m excited to go back definitely, but I’m going to treat this game just like any SEC game and any other opponent we face,” Neal said.
If Neal maintains this pace, he could become Tennessee’s first SEC rushing leader since Travis Stephens in 2001. Georgia’s Todd Gurley currently tops the SEC with 536 yards rushing.
Neal would consider that individual title a true team accomplishment.
“I think we can do it,” Neal said. “I can’t do it by myself. I’ve got a little help I’m going to need from my big guys. And when it happens, it’s going to be something we’re all going to celebrate and be happy about.”