Staff File Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Vols tailback Rajion Neal (20) winds through UAB defenders. The University of Tennessee Vols played against the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and won in double overtime 32-29 in September.
KNOXVILLE — During one of Derek Dooley’s summer conversations with the Times Free Press, the first-year University of Tennessee football coach admitted he probably couldn’t be picky in trying to get young players on the field this season.
Unlike some regimes, Dooley and his staff don’t demand that players learn the entire system before getting on the field.
“Obviously, you’d like all your guys to know everything — even your young guys — but that’s usually not how it works,” Dooley said. “If you can only do one thing well, but you can do that one thing well enough to make some big plays for us, we’ll get you on the field.”
True freshman tailback Rajion Neal has proved plenty capable of burning Southeastern Conference defenders on what UT’s coaches call a “rail” route. He starts in the backfield, leaks out toward the sideline and catches the ball heading downfield, like a wide receiver.
Neal, a four-star prospect who committed to Mississippi State before Dooley turned him late in the recruiting process, burned unsuspecting Georgia with a 58-yard catch inside the 5 in the second half of the Vols’ loss in Athens three weeks ago. After the Volunteers’ off week, he gained 26 yards on the same route in last Saturday’s loss to Alabama.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound, Atlanta-area native has carved a nice niche for himself in UT’s offense. He’s emerged as junior starter Tauren Poole’s primary backup, and he’s gained 239 yards on just 28 offensive touches, averaging a healthy 6.1 yards per carry and even healthier 19.5 yards per catch.
Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney moved Neal ahead of shifty sophomore David Oku on the depth chart earlier this month, and they hope to get him more and more involved. But the whole process started with Neal showing against Georgia and Alabama that he could do at least one thing at a high level.
“Some people call it a wheel route,” Dooley said. “Some people’s wheel is kind of an out-and-up. Some people call it a shoot route.
“Welcome to football. There’s 800 words for the same thing.”
But not many words are needed to say that Neal is a fast running back who can catch the football down the field.
“That’s something I worked on in high school, on and off the field — just being a back that can catch and everything, kind of being versatile,” Neal said.
Dooley and Chaney saw Neal burn UT’s first-team defense in the passing game a few times before adding it to their Saturday arsenal.
“When you run that rail route, there’s a lot of different positions where the ball can be,” Dooley said. “It could be over the top, it could be back shoulder, it could be up high depending on the leverage of the defender. And he does a good job of catching it.
“He’s athletic, he’s fast and he’s got good ball skills. He can do some things — some more receiver-type things — that some backs [can’t]. Every back’s got some strengths, and every back’s got things they don’t do as well.
“You’re just trying to use their strengths to give you an advantage. That’s all you try to do.”
Chaney described Neal as “a very good athlete [with] very good hand-eye coordination.”
“Catching the ball on that route is not an issue with him, and we’re really pleased to be able to have someone in the program his age that can handle that role for a lot of years,” Chaney said. “It’s been good to get him the ball that way. ... It seems like there’s always a couple of guys you feel comfortable throwing it to, and a couple of other guys you don’t. Rajion just seems like he has a knack for it, and the quarterbacks trust him to be where he needs to be and it’s worked out pretty good for us.”
Neal’s goal now is to increase his role and eventually become a better every-down option. Gaining 36 yards on just six carries against Alabama should help that cause.
“I’m playing a good bit, just kind of like what I thought I’d be,” Neal said. “I’m kind of just playing a role, taking what they give me and just kind of helping out.
“I’m getting a little confidence, but then again there is still work to be done. I’m just happy to be in this situation. I feel so blessed to even be playing with the boys, but I’ve got a little confidence.”
Poole praised his understudy, saying Neal can evolve into being a complete back “if he makes that choice.”
But UT’s starting tailback also got a good laugh out of hearing Neal say he had “a little” confidence.
“Rajion chooses to be the outside runner because he thinks he’s the fastest man in the world,” Poole said. “But once he makes that choice and once he trusts that he can make cuts in the hole and be a one-cut runner, then he’s going to be a great one.”
Poole laughed again when asked if he’d ever broken the bad news to Neal that he’s not the world’s fastest man.
“Yeah, I have,” Poole said. “He just doesn’t want to believe it. He still thinks he’s the fastest guy on the football team, but that’s the kind of mentality you have when you come in as a young guy.
“He just wants to compete, and I love that in him. He brings a lot into the running back room, and it’s just great to see.”
Quarterback Matt Simms said that when he sees No. 20 running down the sideline, he has “complete confidence” that Neal will make a play on any ball thrown his way.
“Coach Chaney is doing a great job a switching it up and getting him open,” Simms said. “Rajion, he just kind of slips out of the backfield and makes plays for us. He makes the catches look easy, and he’s been making a lot of big plays for us out of the backfield.”
Ultimately, though, someone as athletic as Neal will be expected to expand his game and start doing everything as well as he catches the ball.
“We are going to expect more and more from him each week now,” Simms said.