Fumbling on each of his first two carries in Game 5 at Georgia reduced him to spot duty thereafter. Just when Neal's career as a ball-carrier appeared doomed, however, Tennessee hired Jay Graham as running backs coach. Graham corrected the ball-security problems, which is why Neal will be the starting tailback when the Vols face North Carolina State in their Aug. 31 opener.
"I haven't had a single fumble all summer," Neal proudly noted this week. "That goes back to Coach Graham coaching me. He was breaking down the film on where my ball-handling was breaking down — when I was doing things I wasn't supposed to do, when I wasn't in the right gap or when I wasn't doing this correctly. It just goes back to coaching."
Neal's radical turnaround should come as no surprise. Graham previously coached at South Carolina, where his running backs lost just two fumbles during the entire 2009 season. Clearly, the man knows the key to ball security.
"Just being more decisive," Neal said. "There was times when I was doing too much. You've just got to know what to do and when to do it. When you get away from that, that's when you're running high ... when you're running loose. You're in places you're not supposed to be, and that puts you at risk for putting the ball on the ground."
|Running backs coach Jay Graham has put in extra time helping Neal hold onto the football.|
"I definitely want to be a 1,000-yard rusher," he said, "but I want to do whatever it takes to win. I know that's going to be us having a productive running game."
Tennessee's ground attack mustered an SEC-worst 90.1 yards per game in 2011. Neal and his fellow offensive players remain embarrassed about that to this day.
"We don't dwell on it," he said, "but we definitely keep it as a motivation to keep us going."
Tennessee devoted all spring and much of fall camp to improving the run game. Neal believes Vol backs are taking considerable pride in that area these days.
"It means a lot. It's a reflection on us and the O-line," he said. "These guys (blockers) have been working their butts off, and so have we. We're ready to show everybody that Tennessee's run game is going to come back strong."
Certainly, Rajion Neal has come back strong. After losing the confidence of Tennessee's head coach in 2011, he has reclaimed it during the offseason. The obvious question: Why?
"His level of consistency more than anything," head coach Derek Dooley said. "It's hard for me to say one day he had a great practice and one day he had a bad one. I couldn't identify his great practice or his bad one. He's been real consistent and comfortable in that role. He's produced every day. He's progressed in all his areas, so I feel good about him."
Neal feels good about himself after carrying nine times for 134 yards in the first fall scrimmage and eight times for 47 yards in the second. Once buried on the depth chart, he's justifiably proud to be the No. 1 tailback heading into the opener.
"I feel like I've earned it," he said. "It's always great to hear that but I know there is still work to be done and there will be times that I still have to prove to the team and the league that this decision was made correctly."