Hittin' the hole

InsideTennessee is the only place you need to visit for your Vol football updates. Check out this in-depth look at the progress made by a key offensive weapon.

Jay Graham was a 220-pound Tennessee tailback in the 1990s who ran like a 250-pounder. That's why in his new role as Vol running backs coach he was frustrated earlier this fall when 211-pound Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal ran like a 170-pounder.

Graham is no longer frustrated ... mostly because Neal is no longer running like a 170-pounder. His last two outings saw him post 151 rushing yards versus Akron in Game 4 and 104 versus Georgia in Game 5. Clearly, the Vol junior is hitting holes harder, making cuts more decisively and getting north/south in a bigger hurry.

"Yes, sir. It's something we've been focusing on, something Coach Graham stays on me about," Neal said this week. "It just comes from reps and being with this O-line, focusing on the periods we have throughout practice."

After rushing just 27 times in all of 2011, Neal already has an SEC-leading 103 carries in 2012. He earned those carries the old-fashioned way — with dedication and energy in workouts.

"I think the biggest thing for him has been his practice habits," Graham said. "The effort has been there. He's worked hard, hasn't taken any reps off. I think that shows in his steady improvement."

Tennessee will need a strong showing from Neal this Saturday night, when the Vols visit No. 19 Mississippi State.

Neal enjoyed his finest game as a Vol against Georgia, accumulating 157 all-purpose yards.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"I've told him that Mississippi State is a great defense," Graham said. "They play hard and play well and we have to face them in Starkville, so we've got to be prepared."

Tough guys step up in tough games, and Neal is gradually proving himself to be a tough guy. After spending most of 2011 at wide receiver, he is readjusting to the rugged life of a running back.

"It's more physical," Graham said. "There's pass protection and some other things that he didn't have to do at wide receiver. That's a big transition for him. He's done well — from spring ball through camp and the first part of the season."

Saturday's game is special to Neal, who was committed to Mississippi State for five months before switching his allegiance to Tennessee one week shy of National Signing Day in 2010.

"I'm excited to go back, definitely," he said. "But I'm going to treat this game just like any SEC game and any other opponent we face."

Although he gained more yards against Akron, Neal's best performance as a Vol clearly was his 104-yard effort against a Georgia team ranked in the top five nationally at the time.

"I feel I played pretty well, given the opportunity from my offensive linemen and my receivers on the perimeter," he said. "They did a great job of giving me opportunities, and all I had to do was capitalize on them. I feel good about my performance and the team performance throughout that whole game."

In addition to his rushing yards, Neal added 53 yards and a touchdown on five receptions versus Georgia. Obviously, he still has the receiving skills that earned him playing time at wideout last fall.

"That was just T. Bray giving me opportunities," Neal said. "I have opportunities throughout practice where they move me out, make sure I run a couple of routes and catch the ball."

Although Neal has made considerable progress this fall, he remains a work in progress. He still has rough edges that need to be smoothed.

"Just perfecting the small things — getting better at pass blocking, better at finishing in the open field, beating safeties," he said. "I need to keep doing what I'm doing but critiquing the small things as I go along."

Likewise, Tennessee's offense is a work in progress. It took a big step against Georgia, however, by putting up 37 points and 478 yards.

"We feel real good," Neal said. "I don't think there's too much more you can ask. Those guys fought hard. There was just a couple of things that got away from us, a couple of things that we couldn't capitalize on."

Hear Graham talk after practice this week in the video below:

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