'It felt awesome'

Throughout preseason camp and the first three games of the 2011 season he was Tennessee's version of the Easter Bunny: You kept hearing about him but you rarely saw him.

That changed last Saturday, as Rajion Neal finally got a chance to show what he can do. Tennessee's second scrimmage play in Game 4 versus Buffalo saw him catch a 14-yard pass and the third play saw him score untouched on a 20-yard flanker reverse. Later, he gained six yards on a second-quarter reverse but was charged with a six-yard loss when he struggled to handle a third-quarter lateral.

Neal's stat line — three carries for 20 yards, one catch for 14 yards — didn't have Vol fans dancing in the streets but the big-play potential he displayed had them thinking he could be a dynamic addition to both the ground game and the passing attack.

Asked following Tuesday's practice how it felt to finally make a substantial contribution, he smiled broadly before answering.

"It felt good — finally coming back, being healthy and contributing to the win that we had. It felt awesome," he said. "Definitely, I've been going through little nicks and bruises and injuries from camp, so it felt awesome to finally get back out there."

It had to feel good for Tennessee's coaches to see him out there, as well. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Neal, after all, might be the Vols' fastest player. Blessed with 4.36 speed over 40 yards, he's a threat to break a big play any time he touches the ball.

When asked what he brings to the lineup, Neal smiled and replied: "Speed. Definitely speed ... a guy that's not afraid to make plays and make a couple of little mistakes. I'm going to test the boundaries and try to do some things that most folks wouldn't do. At the end of the day, I hope it pays off."

Tennessee hopes it pays off, too. The Vols need all of the big-play weapons they can find now that superstar wideout Justin Hunter is out for the year with a torn ACL. Neal admits feeling some pressure to pick up the slack.

"Kind of," he said. "With Justin out there, there was so much we could do with him. Losing him, it opened a giant gap. But we've got playmakers with Da'Rick (Rogers), (DeAnthony) Arnett, Zach (Rogers), myself. We've all just got to come together, try to fill that void a little bit and keep rolling."

After recording just five carries for 17 yards and zero catches in the first three games, Neal's Game 4 performance suggests he is going to play a much more prominent role in the weeks to come.

"I see it growing a lot," he said, "as long as I keep working hard, keep executing and showing the coaches that I'm trustworthy ... that I can make these plays and do what I'm asked."

After spending his freshman year at tailback, Neal is playing mostly slotback as a sophomore this fall. He'll occasionally experience deja vu by lining up in the backfield, however. He seems happy with the dual role.

"I'm always asking questions, trying to find out the little edges I can get," he said. "I feel pretty good about it. I'm still learning and having fun doing it."

Although he's essentially having to learn two positions, Neal believes he has each down pat.

"A lot of guys refer to it as kind of a hybrid (role) but as long as you pay attention and you're willing to learn — ask questions and get around the guys that really know the stuff — it'll come to you," he said. "It's not too hard. They try to make it as simple as possible for me. I'm rolling with it and having fun."

Some teams ask a hybrid player to learn a limited package of 10 or 12 plays, then use him only in those situations. Apparently, that is not the case with Rajion Neal.

"Oh, no. They throw the whole playbook at me," he said. "I know all of ours. When I get my new receiving package I go over it the night before, get with J. Hunter and Da'Rick. Sometimes I get with (Matt) Simms or (Tyler) Bray, and they really break it down for me. Me and CB (receivers coach Charlie Baggett) actually have little sessions where he'll go over everything with me for the whole week so I can be prepared."

Although he grew up in Fayetteville, Ga., Neal says that has little bearing on his approach to Saturday's game with the Georgia Bulldogs. He admits that he followed UGA growing up but not too closely.

"You always have hometown faves — you like the Bulldogs, Tech, the Falcons," he said. "It's a big game but to me it's just another game we have to take seriously and prepare for. It's a little more meaningful just because it's an SEC game."

Another factor that makes Saturday's game a little more meaningful is the fact Neal recorded the biggest play of his college career — a 58-yard catch/run — versus the Bulldogs in last year's game at Athens. That play has flashed through his mind several times this week, especially since he was tackled just short of the goal line.

"That's been in the back of my mind — being clipped at the 2 (yard-line)," he recalled with a pained grin. "I definitely feel we owe 'em one, I owe 'em one. Hopefully, we can get a couple of IOUs and a win."


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