Unexpected lift

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At 5-feet-11 and 212 pounds, junior tailback Rajion Neal caused some chuckles when he showed up to lift weights with Tennessee's offensive linemen earlier this summer.

Dwarfed by Antonio Richardson (6-feet-6, 329 pounds), Ja'Wuan James (6-feet-6, 320), Dallas Thomas (6-feet-5, 300), Alex Bullard (6-feet-2, 304) and James Stone (6-feet-3, 310), Neal must have resembled a shrimp swimming in the shark tank.

Thomas will never forget the first time Neal joined the big boys for a weight workout.

"It was like, 'Are you serious?' We was laughing and joking around like 'For real?'"

The laughs were short-lived.

"Then we start hitting it," Thomas noted. "We'd do like five reps at 315, then we're saying, 'Watch this: He's going to struggle with it.' Next thing you know he's like Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! And we're like ... OK!"

James recalls going from amused to amazed in a matter of seconds, as well.

"It was funny at first," he said, "but Rajion comes to work every day, and he's just as strong as all of us. He wanted to move with us so he could push himself, max himself out."

Even the massive Richardson has developed a healthy respect for Neal's lifting prowess.

"I want to show those guys I'm ready to work for 'em, help 'em out the best way I can."

Rajion Neal

"Pound for pound, Rajion is a strong dude," the guy known as "Tiny" said. "That dude can bench-press 415 and squat about 560. When he gets in the weight room he can hold his own with us."

Although lifting against bigger guys motivates Neal to do his best, lifting against a much smaller man provided even greater incentive for the offensive linemen.

"It was a big push," he recalled following Friday's practice. "Those guys didn't want to see a little guy come in there and out-lift them. It was competition of pushing each other. I feel it helped them and myself."

Neal maxed out at 415 pounds on the bench press, at 560 on the squat and at 24 repetitions of 225 pounds — numbers that compare favorably with the best posted by Tennessee's offensive linemen. Ultimately, he earned their respect and admiration.

"We know we've got a back that can go pound-for-pound with us," Thomas said. "He's not afraid to bang with us. That's one of the reasons we're so excited and ready to roll with him."

Neal is eager to make a mark at tailback after splitting time between tailback and wideout in 2011.

"I worked extra hard with the O-linemen," he said. "We were lifting a lot of weight, doing a lot extra. I was definitely preparing for full-time being in the backfield."

Because of some early-season fumbles, Neal spent much of last fall at wide receiver. Now that he's exclusively a tailback again, he's able to gear his body and his mind toward that role.

"At times I may be asked to do other things," he said, "but it's definitely a weight off my shoulders — focusing in on one position, honing in and mastering that."

In an effort to stay fast and flexible for wide receiver, Neal says he cut back on his weight-lifting the second half of 2011. Now that he's a full-time rusher again, he's focused on developing the explosive power needed to run between the tackles.

Noting that strength is vital when a tailback is "running through arm tackles," Neal added that it also helps "being strong enough to stay on that track and keep your balance.... I feel strength and balance really are a big part of playing running back."

Neal insists he has increased his strength while maintaining his blazing 4.36 speed over 40 yards.

"Yes sir," he said. "Definitely."

The Vols are counting on Neal's rare blend of speed and power to help them upgrade a ground attack that mustered an SEC-worst 90.1 rushing yards per game a year ago. He's counting on the same thing.

"I want to prove to my teammates that I'm dependable and reliable," he said. "I want to show those guys I'm ready to work for 'em, help 'em out the best way I can."

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