KNOXVILLE — Coming off the two best performances of his career, Rajion Neal had no interest in accepting any accolades.
Instead, Tennessee's senior tailback pointed to his offensive line as the source of his success.
Really, though, it's a combination of factors that allowed Neal to run for 169 yards against South Alabama and follow up that career-high performance with a 149-yard effort against Georgia two weeks ago.
From a heavy volume of carries and Neal watching game and practice film with his offensive linemen to the constant pushing of running backs coach Robert Gillespie and, yes, the Volunteers' veteran line, it's come together for Neal.
"It's been a process, and he's made progress every week," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Wednesday evening following Tennessee's practice. "Since week one, since our first day here, he's improved in a lot of ways: in his pass protection, in his ability to finish runs in a physical manner.
"As guys make plays, they get the ball more, and Rajion has proven that he can make plays."
Entering Saturday's game against 11th-ranked South Carolina, Neal is fourth in the SEC with 102.7 rushing yards per game, and three of his five career 100-yard performances have come this season.
With Marlin Lane missing the majority of the past two games with an injury, Neal carried the ball 53 times because of his play and Tennessee's lack of confidence in a third tailback.
Since arriving about a week before spring practice began, Gillespie has been demanding and tough on Neal and his backs, and it's paid off.
"I think with the right amount of pressure, man, something great will come from it," Neal said. "I feel he's done a great job. I've just got to continue to accept it and just roll with it."
Gillespie said his approach has remained the same since the offseason.
"Hopefully he's understanding why," Gillespie said. "It's my job to continue to push him every day, just continue to find the little things to get him better, so that way the game on Saturday's easy. I think all the guys really understand where it's coming from. It starts at the top with Coach [Butch] Jones and filters down. We're just a passionate group of coaches.
"If anything," he added, "I'm tougher."
A four-star prospect when he signed with Tennessee in 2010, Neal navigated a bumpy freshman season, predominantly played receiver as a sophomore and started last season strong before an ankle injury sidelined him for two games.
Neal's not been 100 percent this season, either, but he's played through it, prompting Jones to call him a "warrior."
Though Tennessee is content with what it's gotten from Neal, Gillespie, in typical fashion, sees the space between Neal's current level of play and his ceiling.
"There's a lot," he said. "There's still the long runs. In this running back room, we talk about turning 8 into 80. We still hadn't taken that long one to the house yet, so there's still that, there's still finishing our runs a little bit better and some holes we're missing and becoming better pass protectors.
"There's a lot of areas we can continue to get better in, but the thing is those guys come in every day eyes wide open trying to find that extra inch that Coach [Jones] is talking about this week."
Gillespie said Neal has taken strides in terms of watching film and understanding the game, and Neal credited his increased time in the film room to the prodding of his coaches. One of the strongest players on the team, Neal's lifted weights in the offseason with the linemen. Now he's watching video with the big guys blocking for him, and it's helping him.
"We've got a great relationship on and off the field, and we find ourselves off the field just talking about games, different fits, stuff that we might have did in practice that just spring up on us," Neal said. "We're always kind of around each other talking about ball and just really spending time with each other.
"We definitely find time to get in and sit in with those guys and pick their brains a little bit."
Those times are part of the formula that's worked for Neal, and the Vols need him to continue playing the way he is.
"That's our job as coaches, to go out and give them guys a chance to have some success, go out and play to their full potential," Gillespie said. "All these guys do different things, and Rajion's a guy that obviously has some talent. I don't think his best has been tapped into.
"Hopefully after the bye week, he continues to get better and hits his stride and just becomes the type of player that I believe he can be. Now he's starting to believe he can be that kind of player, too."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...
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