KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal was in a groove.
After running for 342 yards in three September games, the Volunteers' leading rusher kept it going in Tennessee's opening second-half possession at Mississippi State.
Then a Bulldogs defender fell on his left ankle and knocked him off track and out of the Vols' next two games.
The junior is optimistic he'd return for Saturday's game against Troy, and coach Derek Dooley said he "could definitely play" against the Trojans. Recapturing that pre-injury groove might be the trickiest part of the return, but Neal believes the formula is simple
"Just hit and don't think about it," he said Tuesday morning. "Trust [the offensive line] like I've been doing and go. Everything will take care of itself."
Through six games, Neal led the Southeastern Conference and put himself in the top five players in the league in rushing yards per game. He'd taken hold of Tennessee's top tailback spot with 191 yards combined against Florida and Georgia and 151 yards against Akron. With 40 yards on nine carries against Mississippi State before his injury, Neal remained on the 4.5-per-carry average he had built up this season.
The sprain kept him out of practice and sidelined him for the losses to Alabama and South Carolina.
"It's really hard to put in words how hard it is to sit over there on the sideline in your uniform knowing that you can't really go out there and help your team," Neal said. "That's a big challenge, and I didn't know it was going to be that hard. It's a terrible feeling, a real terrible feeling, especially when you see how close these guys are getting and how they're out there fighting.
"You just want to go out there and just do something, just a little something, to be a part of it, and it's hard that I can't be."
The Vols will have a better idea after practice today and Thursday if Neal and right guard Zach Fulton, who hurt his ankle against Alabama, will be available for Troy. Dooley warned that Neal is not 100 percent and suggested it's easier for players who don't need their speed, as Neal does, to return from ankle injuries. The biggest test for Neal, Dooley said, is overcoming the "mental hurdle" of playing through pain.
It's hard to say Tennessee didn't miss Neal in the backfield, especially given how effective he was when he was injured.
"We were running the ball pretty well," Dooley said. "I don't know how much of a difference it would have made the last two games. It's hard to say, but certainly we were running it really well and didn't run it as well without him."
With a healthy Neal in the season's first five games, Tennessee averaged 177.4 rushing yards per game. After finishing the Mississippi State game with 213 yards on the ground, the Vols combined for just 170 yards against Alabama and South Carolina. The Crimson Tide and Gamecocks rank first and 16th nationally in stopping the run.
Marlin Lane ran for 111 yards on 30 carries against those two stout defenses for a 3.7-yard average per rush, the same number Neal managed against Florida, the nation's No. 13 rush defense.
"I feel they've done well," Neal said. "They're running hard, they're trusting the O-line and ... soaking it in and taking advantage of their opportunities."
Running backs coach Jay Graham, Neal said, has been a "big part" of his mental recovery in terms of guiding him through what to expect and how to manage the injury. He's increased how much he's doing in practice, and he continues to prepare during the week as if he'll play. He wasn't close to play against Alabama and was disappointed he couldn't play at South Carolina.
"It was a really, really big challenge sitting over there knowing there was nothing I could possibly do," he said. "I get a little emotional before the game when they tell you you've got to sit this one out. I just try to stay positive and give all the support I can to my teammates.
"I wanted to play Alabama, but obviously I couldn't. It's hard to sit back and watch those guys that you work hard with year after year. Coming from where we've been, it's hard to see them play and there's nothing that you can do to go out there and help them."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.