'Ready to roll'

He registered Tennessee's third-longest reception of the 2010 season, a 58-yard catch/run at Georgia ... quite feat for a freshman reserve tailback who caught just seven passes all season.

That's why Big Orange fans are understandably excited about rising sophomore Rajion Neal: He exhibited considerable home-run potential on that dazzling play.

"It helped my confidence a lot," he says, "knowing I could come into this type of league, catch and do what I need to do to contribute to this team."

That eye-popping play in Athens was pretty much Neal's only 2010 highlight, however. As a little-used backup to No. 1 tailback Tauren Poole, he finished the season with 46 rushes for 197 yards (4.3 per carry) and seven receptions for 100 yards (14.3 per catch). Tennessee's coaches expected more. So did Tennessee's fans. So did Rajion Neal himself.

"I didn't feel I helped this offense as much as I could with my running ability, my catching and route-running," he said. "I didn't feel I did as much as Tauren did and as much as the receivers did because I was new to it, I wasn't taking it as serious and I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do."

The failure to live up to his 2010 expectations should help make Neal a much better player in 2011.

"I do have high expectations for myself to come out here, help this team and be a contributor," he said.

Head coach Derek Dooley has high expectations for Neal, too. The boss recently called out Tennessee's backs, noting that they were responsible for the inconsistent ground attack last fall and need to be a lot more productive in 2011.

Neal took the criticism the way a five-year-old takes a dare.

"I feel it's a challenge," he said. "I feel it's going to push us, make practice more exciting. That will definitely make us come out here and show Coach Dooley that we're ready."

After losing the No. 2 tailback job to Neal last November, rising junior David Oku decided to transfer to another school. As a result, the only scholarship tailbacks this spring are Poole, Neal and redshirt sophomore Toney Williams, who gained just 11 yards on five carries last fall after recovering from a severe ACL tear in 2009.

Tennessee's coaches moved to bolster the depth at tailback by signing three in February - Tom Smith of Apopka, Fla., Marlin Lane of Daytona Beach and Devrin Young of Knoxville.

Asked if he views the pending arrival of three more tailbacks as added pressure, Neal shrugged.

"Kind of, just because I didn't do as much as expected last year," he said. "I feel kind of a challenge because we do have three young backs coming in that's nipping at the bud, ready to come in and play."

Just as the three freshmen hope to put pressure on Neal for the second-team job, Neal hopes to put pressure on Poole for the first-team job.

"It's a friendly competition," Neal said. "I'm definitely trying to help the team. It's nothing personal; it's part of the game and everybody's got to go through it."

Like a lot of freshmen, Neal played slow last fall - sometimes hesitating instead of hitting a hole at full speed. Despite bumping his weight from 199 to 207 pounds since arriving on The Hill, he thinks he's moving quicker this spring.

"Last season I was doing a lot of thinking, playing slow," he said. "The key is to play fast and be physical. Hit the hole harder, fill those gaps when those 'backers are coming in and just being an all-around complete back."

One reason he was hesitant last season is that he didn't always know what he was doing. That problem has been solved.

"I feel a lot better," Neal said. "Over the offseason I watched film, went over my playbook, got a better understanding of the offense.... I feel I'm playing faster just because I'm familiar with the offense and I know what I'm doing. It's not much thinking. It's just reacting and going off what I know."

Even as he gained weight, Neal managed to lower his 40 time.

"I ran a 4.36 electric here," he said. "I'm still carrying 207, 208 pounds, so I feel good. I've got my weight, I've got my speed, and I'm just ready to roll."

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