Rajion Neal believes he took a step in the right direction.
However, had the Vols running back glanced at his stat line following UT’s 47-26 win over Akron, he may have changed his statement to ‘steps’.
The junior running back reached a career high in rushing yards and became the first UT rusher to break the 100-yard mark this season – accomplishing both feats before halftime.
“My confidence is pretty high,” Neal said. “The offensive line put me in some good situations. I’m starting to understand what it takes and understand what needs to be done.”
Neal finished the night with 22 carries for 151 yards in a performance that elicited praised from Vols head coach Derek Dooley.
“He did a lot better today,” Dooley said. “…What? Close to seven yards a carry? That’s what we needed.”
With his longest burst coming on a 29-yard run in the second quarter, Neal averaged 6.9 yards per-carry, nearly doubling his average (3.7) from the Vols’ three previous contests.
“All the running backs played great,” Vols quarterback Tyler Bray said. “[Neal] ran well. … He played great.”
Neal’s 151 yards fronted a four-headed Vols’ rushing attack that totaled 232 yards on the evening. Coming into the day the Vols had averaged just 160 yards rushing.
It looked like he broke some tackles. He was hitting the hole hard. Vols head coach Derek Dooley “I was told that I did some things well,” Neal said. “[All] in all, I feel like I take a step forward each week. I feel like I’m headed in the right direction, and my coaches are helping me get there.”
Facing his biggest criticism of not running North and South, Neal rushed just once for negative yards.
“It looked like he broke some tackles,” Dooley said. “He was hitting the hole hard.”
Shoring up a heavily questioned Vols’ running attack, Neal credits his performance to first year running back coach Jay Graham, who played running back at UT from 1993-1996 and ranks seventh all-time on the Vols’ career rushing list.
“Coach Graham stays in my ear saying to just get it and go,” Neal said. “…I’m conscious of [running North and South], but as the game goes in it becomes second nature. [Coach Graham and I] focus on it so much in practice that when the game comes it really is second nature.”