Back in the backfield

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Rajion Neal's career as a Tennessee tailback was humming along nicely last fall until it was rerouted by a pop and two drops.

The pop was in star wideout Justin Hunter's left knee, the result of a season-ending ACL tear against Florida in Game 3. The two drops were on Neal's first two carries against Georgia in Game 5. He recovered each fumble but lost the confidence of the coaching staff. Result: He got just two carries over the next 15 quarters and spent more time at wide receiver than running back over the season's final seven games.

Neal believes his mid-year exodus from tailback was more about "losing J. Hunter and the lack of depth at receiver" than the fumbles. Regardless, now that two-year starter Tauren Poole is gone, Neal has returned to tailback on a full-time basis. To say he's glad might be the understatement of the spring.

"I wanted to come back a lot," he said following Monday's initial practice of the spring. "This feels natural, feels comfortable. This is where I feel at home. This is something I don't have to think about. I just go react and play fast."

Describing his time at receiver as both "fun and frustrating," he added that he derived an unexpected benefit in that "It helped me learn the offense way better, knowing it from two positions."

"This feels natural, feels comfortable. This is where I feel at home. This is something I don't have to think about. I just go react and play fast."

Rajion Neal

Neal showed some flashes as a receiver last November, reeling in a 53-yard pass touchdown pass versus Kentucky and finishing with a team-best 20.7 yards-per-catch average on 13 receptions. Still, he preferred to play tailback, and he wasn't shy about letting head coach Derek Dooley know that.

"There was definitely some conversations, some meetings, some phone calls," Neal recalled. "After the good recruiting they did getting other receivers in, getting Justin (Hunter) back and getting Da'Rick (Rogers) back healthy, they felt we had enough at receiver. They knew we were struggling in the running game, so they moved me back."

Returning Neal to tailback was a virtual no-brainer. The Vols' only other experienced tailbacks are three unproductive sophomores — Marlin Lane, walk-on Jaron Toney and Tom Smith. Lane averaged 3.7 yards on 75 carries last fall, Toney 2.4 on 31 rushes and Smith 2.6 on 13 carries. Conversely, Neal averaged 5.0 yards per attempt last fall en route to 134 yards and two touchdowns.

"We didn't get as much production (from him) at wideout, and we needed someone who can give us some production at running back," Dooley said of Neal's return to the backfield. "His focus right now is at running back."

Asked how Neal has changed since last fall, Dooley replied: "I think he's playing with a little more conviction. We talked a lot about playing with a little more toughness."

And with a lot more ball security. Neal's fumbling issue has been addressed this offseason by first-year running backs coach Jay Graham, who makes all of his troops do punitive "up-downs" if any of them drops the ball during a drill.

"Oh, man, every day," Neal said with a sigh. "We did that a lot in the offseason -- a lot of ball-handling, a lot of ball security. He preaches the techniques of holding onto the ball, so we've really been getting after it."

Blessed with a 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame and 4.36 speed over 40 yards, Neal has the blend of size and speed to be a touchdown threat each time he touches the ball ... provided he holds onto it.

"It's something I focus on, something I take pride in," he said. "I definitely went over it a lot over the offseason with Coach Graham every day. It's something I'm really good with now."

Just as switching from tailback to receiver was difficult, switching from receiver back to tailback is requiring some adjustments. Neal said the "speed and physicality" are a lot different at tailback, so he is working on "just coming out running, being decisive in my cuts and coming downhill."

Once he makes those adjustments, Neal fully expects to emerge as one of the SEC's top tailbacks in 2012.

"My goal is to win me a starting job," he said, "and definitely go over 1,000 yards."


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