KNOXVILLE -- They were the last words Rajion Neal wanted to hear.
When referee David Smith announced that the Southeastern Conference replay official had overturned the Tennessee tailback's fumble in the first quarter of the Volunteers' win against Akron, Neal's mind flashed back to his freshman season, when he had just four carries in three games following his fumble against Memphis.
He knew what was coming.
"I was like, 'Oh, it's about to go down on this sideline,'" Neal said Monday morning.
What happened next, though, surprised him. It was the junior's first lost fumble of the season, but the Vols went right back to him. He began Tennessee's next offensive series, chipped in a 16-yarder on the drive that ended in a field goal and took his medicine from running backs coach Jay Graham in Monday's practice.
"I had a feeling they would come back, [but] I didn't know it would be that soon," he said. "That meant a lot. Back in the day, it probably would have been a wrap.
"That meant a lot to me, man. It really did, and I appreciated that. I think that's just one big step in our relationship and just seeing how things change when you become an older guy and show maturity."
Four games into the season, Neal has strengthened his grip on the Vols' starting tailback spot, and he enters Saturday's trip to fifth-ranked Georgia coming off two strong performances. The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder from Fayetteville, Ga., ran for 87 yards against Florida and set a career high with 151 yards against Akron. He averaged more than 5 yards per carry in both those games as a result of a more up-the-middle running style.
Even after a mistake, the Vols stuck with the player who's been their best running back.
"I've never been one to just hammer a guy on a mistake," coach Derek Dooley said. "He hasn't had that propensity to do that this year, so I think it's an unfair label. We're going to try to give him more than one opportunity, but then obviously there's a point where you've got to make a change."
As Dooley predicted during the preseason, Tennessee's backfield is still unsettled, though now that's limited to the pecking order behind Neal. Quenshaun Watson was the second tailback in the Akron game, but the speedy freshman had negative yardage until a meaningless fourth-quarter possession. Marlin Lane showed some flashes with 47 yards rushing and 49 yards on two catches.
"We're still searching a little bit," Dooley said. "We've got three guys we're trying to figure out right now. They all have different skill sets, they all do different things and it's probably hard on everybody right now trying to figure it out."
Given his talent and the glimpses he's shown, Lane appears to be the safest bet to become Neal's complement. Yet the sophomore had just one carry against Florida after fumbling against Georgia State. The turnover stemmed some of his momentum from a strong showing in the opener, and coaches want to see better consistency from him running the ball, hitting holes and protecting.
"The thing coaches love is when they put a player in the game, they know exactly what they're going to get," Dooley said. "The things that make coaches nervous is when you put a player in the game and you have no idea what's coming. That's the challenge for all of them."
It's a challenge Neal appears to have passed. His 80 carries are 53 more than Lane's 27, and his 89 yards per game are one less than what Tennessee averaged as a team last season. That's not a sign the Vols have arrived running the ball, but they've been more effective this season in that area.
Dooley always has been a two-back coach, but he didn't deny his preference to riding the hot hand during a game.
"I think it just depends on his production and his durability," he said. "My answer is if he's able to average 4 1/2, 5 yards a carry, yes. If the other guys aren't, absolutely.
"The more guys that you have that can get in there and do it, the better [because] you can manage them through the year a little bit better."
The testing of Neal's production and durability gets difficult beginning this week. Georgia has allowed 135 rushing yards per game, and all four opponents have cracked the 100-yard mark. But the Bulldogs are limiting opponents to just 3.4 yards per carry.
All Neal wants to do is keep running hard, breaks a few more arm tackles when he gets to the second line of defense and hold on to the ball.
"I got a good yelling," he said with a smile. "Ball security was a little bit longer today. I just had some little things I was doing putting the ball in the wrong arm, but it's cool. We'll keep working, not dwell on it and keep rolling."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...