KNOXVILLE — Like the rest of his Tennessee teammates, Rajion Neal will enjoy the rest the open date annually provides.
The Volunteers' junior tailback could use it, too.
Though he entered the preseason as part of a three-way backfield competition, Neal leads the Southeastern Conference with 103 carries through five games.
South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore figures to get more than the 12 carries he needs to pass Neal's mark in the Gamecocks' showdown with Georgia in Columbia, but given the nature of Tennessee's offense, Neal's position near the top of that statistical category is surprising.
At 92 yards per game, Tennessee's top runner is fourth in the league, and running backs coach Jay Graham, who coached Lattimore the past two seasons, believes Neal is at a level Graham thought he couldl reach.
"I thought he could," Graham said this week. "I think he's still got things to improve. He can get better.
"You never know what to expect going into any season, but he's done a good job. I don't know what to expect in the next five games, but hopefully every guy can continue to improve. Like I said, it's competitive every day in practice, and the guy that practices the best should get that opportunity to play in the game."
Neal's play has earned him mostof those opportunities. The disparity between him and backup Marlin Lane's carry total is a whopping 68 after just five games. Devrin Young and freshman Quenshaun Watson have combined for seven fewer than Lane.
Neal admitted he didn't think he'd be leading the SEC in carries at any point in the season, but he feels his workload won't wear him down as the season progresses.
"I definitely feel like I will be able to maintain," he said. "Coach Graham does a great job of managing my game and managing what plays I'm taking [off] when. He spaces it out very well, making sure I can get through the whole game and maintain."
If Neal can maintain his current running style and the 4.5-yards per carry average it's created, it'd be a good sign for Tennessee's offense. Like any team, the Vols are best when two-dimensional. They scored 20 points in 40 balanced minutes against Florida and put up 37 at Georgia last week when they ran for 197 yards.
"You can't have a good running game with a back not running the ball well," coach Derek Dooley said. "I think the last couple of weeks he's probably broken more tackles and had more yards after contact than in any of those earlier games. That's certainly a part of it, and we've still got to get Devrin and Marlin and Que and those guys going, too, because we need them all."
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Neal had 104 yards against Georgia That followed 151- and 87-yard performances against Akron and Florida. He also caught six passes for 51 yards against the Bulldogs, which helped him shoot up to sixth in the SEC in all-purpose yardage.
During his stretch of good play, Neal has continued his recent trend of showing no hesitation, demonstrating a good forward lean, finding holes, breaking arm tackles in the second level and holding on to the football.
"He's starting to understand that he needs to be physical," quarterback Tyler Bray said. "Before, he was trying to be the little scatback and make all the moves. Now he knows he needs to the downhill runner, and it's paying off for him."
With three training-camp-like open-date practices, Graham got his full corps of runners back for a couple of days. The emphasis continues to be running through tackles, and the Vols measure yards after contact. Neal certainly has taken that coaching after bouncing runs outside in the opener.
"All of the guys have done a great job of that," Graham said. "Since the first day, the effort level has been there to get better. I think every guy has gotten better.
"Every guy's not the same runner, and I've tried to sit every guy down individually to make sure they understand the things they have to work on and where their game can be."
Neal said he believes the Vols have found a comfort level with him in terms of which plays he likes, and he's simply doing what he's supposed to when the Vols put the ball in his hands.
"They're just giving me opportunities to be successful and help this team," Neal said. "I'm taking my opportunity and running with it and soaking up everything I can and just taking whatever Coach Graham gives me."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...