Impact frosh: Rajion Neal

Our series on freshmen who could play major roles for Tennessee's 2010 football season continues with installment No. 6.

David Oku rushed for 94 yards as a freshman last fall. That's worthy of note because, statistically at least, he is the Vols' top returning rusher from 2009. Tauren Poole, who had 85 yards as a sophomore last fall, was the second-leading rusher in '09. Tennessee's other returning tailback, Toney Williams, missed last season due to a torn ACL.

For those keeping score at home, the top three running backs on the Vols' post-spring depth chart rushed for a combined 179 yards last fall.

What does it all mean? It means fans should keep an eye on incoming freshman Rajion Neal. The 5-11, 215-pounder rushed for 1,812 yards and 33 touchdowns for Sandy Creek High of Tyrone, Ga., last fall.

Will he start? Probably not. Based on spring practice, Poole will be The Guy this fall. In the three major scrimmages he carried 32 times for 223 yards, an average of nearly 7.0 yards per carry. He popped runs of 67 and 65 yards and also caught the ball well out of the backfield.

After Poole, however, Tennessee's running back outlook gets seriously muddled.

Oku (5-10, 195) also had 32 carries in the spring scrimmages but he parlayed his touches into just 90 yards, an average of 2.81 per carry. Williams (6-1, 214), still battling his way back from the ACL injury, managed a mere 20 yards on 21 scrimmage carries.

Given the above, Poole's chief backup in the season ahead might be Rajion Neal. He has more between-the-tackles power than Oku and more healthy knees than Williams.

Several rookie rushers have done exceptionally well at Tennessee. Jamal Lewis rushed for 1,364 yards as a true freshman in 1997. James Stewart ran for 939 yards as a true freshman in 1991. Arian Foster rushed for 879 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2005.

Lewis, Stewart and Foster were aided by great timing, however. Lewis needed only to beat out Mark Levine to make the first-team lineup. Stewart started by unseating Tavio Henson. Foster got his big break when senior Gerald Riggs suffered a season-ending ankle injury midway through the '05 schedule.

Poole seems firmly entrenched as the No. 1 back in 2010, much as Montario Hardesty was in 2009. Thus, Neal's best-case scenario may be to serve as understudy to Poole this fall, much as freshman Bryce Brown (460 yards) served as understudy to Hardesty last fall.

Given how much Tennessee projects to rush the ball this fall, being the No. 2 running back as a true freshman could make Rajion Neal one busy rookie in the season ahead.

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