Rajion Neal catching up as Vols receiver

Rajion Neal catching up as Vols receiver

September 27th, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Rajion Neal

Rajion Neal

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Rajion Neal's search for a home might have reached an end.

Now the Tennessee sophomore is trying to reach the field.

"It's been frustrating," he conceded after Monday morning's practice. "I mean, everybody knows that. Anybody will tell you, but great players have got to adapt, roll with it, keep playing -- do what you've got to do to get on the field."

Neal entered the Volunteers' preseason training camp in August as a running back, but freshman Marlin Lane's emergence and Neal's speed led the coaches to experiment with Neal as a receiver. That hit a roadblock when he missed the last two weeks of camp with a knee injury.

The Vols' off week gave Neal a chance to catch up with his new position, and the depth chart released Monday listed him as a backup at one receiver spot to Da'Rick Rogers with freshman DeAnthony Arnett for UT's home game against Buffalo on Saturday.

"The bye week was real huge because it was kind of implementing me more as a wideout, definitely learning everything and trying to get adapted to that life out there on the perimeter," Neal said. "I'm hungry. I'm learning. I'm embracing it, trying to soak it all in. I'm ready to get back on the field."

The Fayetteville, Ga., native had a 12-yard run on an end-around against Cincinnati, but he fumbled on a fourth-quarter carry later in the game. He didn't play in UT's loss at Florida.

Neal hit a similar rut as a freshman last season, when he had a fumble against Memphis and ran for minus-1 yards on four carries against Ole Miss. He bounced back with a good spring, and now he's trying to bounce back again.

With Justin Hunter out for the season with a torn ACL, the Vols will need help from a handful of places on offense.

"We hope over time, with Rajion, we're trying to settle him in somewhere," coach Derek Dooley said. "I think it's been a lot of things. The injury set him back big time; it did. Then there's a little bit of he's bouncing around at running back and receiver, and we needed to just commit to a position.

"That's kind of what we're doing, and we'll see if it works."

For it to work, Neal must avoid his own self-inflicted wounds.

"They're throwing a lot at me,"he said, "but at the same time, they are throwing stuff at me that benefits me and things that I do feel comfortable running and things that I am familiar with."

Zach Rogers now is the starter at the other receiver spot in Hunter's place. Art Evans and Eric Gordon are listed as co-backups to Marsalis Teague at one cornerback spot. Lane and freshman Devrin Young are bracketed at punt returner and one of the kick returner spots alongside tailback Tauren Poole.

"Devrin has shown what we signed him for," Dooley said. "He's quick, he's elusive, he's got good speed and good ball judgment. Now it's just a question of if he can take those traits and turn them into production on the field."

Bulls on parade

Buffalo comes to Neyland Stadium off back-to-back losses at Ball State and at home to Connecticut. The Bulls, who are just 3-13 under second-year coach Jeff Quinn, hung with Pittsburgh in their season opener before falling 35-16 and beat Stony Brook in their second game.

Quinn coached as an assistant with and under current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly for 21 years at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before going to Buffalo after Turner Gill left for Kansas after leading Buffalo to the Mid-American Conference title in 2008.

The Bulls were the nation's worst scoring offense last season (14.2 points per game), but the Vols don't claim to be looking ahead to a brutal October stretch that includes Georgia, top-ranked LSU, third-ranked Alabama and 10th-ranked South Carolina.

"If we start worrying about that," Dooley warned, "we're going to get embarrassed on Saturday."

Status updates

The Vols' date with the Bulls originally was a road trip to face North Carolina, but UT paid $750,000 to cancel a home-and-home series with the Tar Heels and an additional $900,000 to bring Buffalo to Knoxville. ... Linebacker Herman Lathers did some light jogging during Monday's practice, his first such activity since severely fracturing his ankle in a collision during a June workout. ... Left tackle Dallas Thomas, left guard Alex Bullard and right guard Zach Fulton -- all starting offensive linemen -- returned to practice Monday after missing most of the three workouts last week.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.