Vanishing Vol

He was Tennessee's second-leading rusher as a true freshman last fall. He posted the Vols' third-longest reception of 2010 with a 58-yard catch/run at Georgia. He flashed some return skills with a 29-yard kickoff runback against Alabama. He ran for 152 yards and three touchdowns in the first spring scrimmage of 2011.

Mindful of these noteworthy accomplishments, Vol fans are wondering: What happened to Rajion Neal? Why has a guy who projected to be a big contributor become an even bigger enigma? Why does a player blessed with exceptional power, balance, hands and 4.36 speed have just five touches through the first three games?

Neal, who was expected to challenge senior Tauren Poole for the No.1 tailback job, suffered a sprained knee in August that limited him in preseason camp. When Neal returned to action, he found himself running No. 3 behind Poole and freshman Marlin Lane.

With Tennessee thin at wide receiver, Neal began getting a lot of practice repetitions as a slotback. Through the first three games, however, he has not caught a single pass. His only touches to date were five carries for 17 yards as a reserve tailback.

So, how close is Rajion Neal to contributing for the Big Orange?

"I think he's getting closer," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said following Wednesday's practice. "We got him out there a lot today and he did really good today. Yesterday was a solid day, so we're expecting him to get on the field a lot more and be a productive member of our team."

Given Neal's speed, along with his skills as both a runner and receiver, he seems capable of playing a role for Tennessee similar to the one Chris Rainey plays for Florida.

"I don't know about that," Chaney said. "Right now we're so thin on the perimeter (wide receiver) that we're looking at him out there. He's going to still be in the backfield once in a while - he'll do a little bit of everything - but I don't know that (a Rainey-type role) will necessarily be his role."

Neal showed some potential as a return specialist last fall but apparently does not wish to be an option for that role this fall.

"If Rajion wants to be he could be," special teams coordinator Eric Russell said. "Right now I don't know what Rajion wants to do. I think he's got the tools. I think he's got the ability (but) special teams haven't been very high on his priority list."

That's a shame because Neal seems to possess all of the skills you look for in a kickoff return man.

"There's no question," Russell said. "We've asked him. We've tried. Right now he can't do it."

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