KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee tailback back Rajion Neal is hoping to play a bigger role against Alabama as a senior.
Neal missed the Volunteers' 44-13 loss to the Crimson Tide in 2012 with an ankle injury and was practically nonexistent in 2011 as a receiver with only 7 yards of offense. He managed just over 100 all-purpose yards during his freshman season matchup against the eventual national champions, with 36 yards on the ground and 29 on two receptions.
"This is a good game to put it all out there," Neal said after Tuesday's practice. "I wouldn't mind either outrushing everybody on the field and having a big game, or just knocking myself completely out of the game. I want to go out on one of those two notes. Either being carried off the field or have a crazy game."
Marlin Lane, the other half of Tennessee's tailback tandem, has had a more substantial impact against the Tide. Lane ran for 55 yards and caught five passes for 46 and totaled 70 all-purpose yards against the Tide as a freshman in 2011.
Both backs have improved their ability to pick up the tough yards, but Alabama's defense, ranked first nationally in points allowed, will be the "stiffest challenge to date" of the Vols' collective toughness, said Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
Lane and Neal, who conducted their post-practice interviews together Tuesday, understand the benefits of having two starting backs.
"It's nice," Lane said. "Some teams have a running back that gets hurt and they don't have a backup that's ready to go. But with us, if one of us gets banged we know we're going in and we're ready."
Howard bounces back
Sophomore receiver Alton "Pig" Howard has become an important piece of Tennessee's offense. In the last two games he has averaged 73 yards of offense after averaging 43 during the first four games.
Howard lost the game-deciding fumble in overtime during the Vols' 34-31 loss to Georgia, and while disastrous mistakes can have a lasting mental effect on some players, Howard bounced back with a touchdown catch against South Carolina.
"I've moved forward," he said. "I haven't really [thought] about that situation at all. I just play for the guys beside me and for Tennessee and this program, and I just try to do my best job. I just try to handle my situation as well as possible. I don't sit down and dwell on the past at all. I just try to look forward and focus on the future."
Jones attributed Howard's increased production to the work he's done during the week.
"Alton has really stepped up, and he continues to get better and better," the coach said. "It's a direct correlation to his work habits in practice. The last couple of weeks, he's performed as well as I've seen him perform in practice.
"I like the way his mental approach has been in the meetings, the way he's taking to the practice field, and that's the reason why he's performing on Saturdays. I like his overall approach."
'The red team'
In Tuscaloosa the Vols will have to face a defense that's allowed just 9.7 points per game through seven games. Alabama allowed 42 points to Texas A&M, which leads the SEC and ranks third nationally in total offense, but the top-ranked Tide's other six opponents have combined to score just 26 points.
"They're disciplined and well coached," Howard said. "They have great technique and they changed their defense up with different motions. We've just got to do our jobs and just play our game of football."
The Tide rank fifth in the nation for yards allowed with 275. Since Nick Saban became Alabama's coach in 2007, the Vols have lost six straight to the Tide by an average of 23 points. Tennessee has managed only 10 points per game during the skid, with the 17 points scored in 2007 UT's highest scoring output during the streak.
Multiple players referred to Alabama as just "the red team" on Tuesday.
"A lot of teams get beat mentally when they talk about their ranking or going up against 'the red team,' but that's not a factor for us," Howard said.
Quarterback Justin Worley, who hit his hand on a South Carolina defender's helmet and had it examined during Saturday's win, wore gloves on both hands during Tuesday's practice. Jones: "Just wanting to try something. He felt he could grip the ball better. There was a couple of times last week that the ball slipped out of his hands. I don't know if he'll wear them tomorrow." ... Freshman receiver Josh Smith (hamstring) did not practice, and the Vols know more regarding his availability tomorrow. ... Left guard Alex Bullard (ankle) was limited in practice but is expected to play.
Contact Sam Gilbreath at email@example.com.