A scant week ago, the Tennessee Volunteers' football hope rested on the limber arm of junior quarterback Tyler Bray and a stable of receiving targets that boasted a true embarrassment of riches in Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Mychal Rivera and Da'Rick Rogers.
Fast forward through a week riddled with adversity, and you can now subtract one of those players from the roster. Problematic but uber-talented junior receiver Rogers transferred to Tennessee Tech after being suspended indefinitely at UT following failures of multiple drug tests. While the passing game is still expected to be a strength for the Vols -- and plenty of hope still hinges on the flick of Bray's wrist -- it's a little less of the sure thing it was a week ago ... especially entering Friday night's tilt with North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome.
As the season progresses, UT should improve at receiver. But with this being a potentially timid Hunter's first game back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Patterson's first game on this elite level, Rivera battling back from an ankle sprain and the rest of the wide receiver corps hampered by injuries, there is at least concern that the product we see on the field Friday won't be quite as polished as the one we'll have throughout the year.
That's why I present to you Friday night's X-factor: Rajion Neal. In fact, Neal may just be the player the Vols will rely on most to turn their fortunes around this season.
If Bray goes down, the Vols are in a world of hurt. When Herman Lathers can't go, Tennessee's defense won't be able to get aligned as well as it can with him in there. If there's a time when Rivera is banged up before Brendan Downs gets healthy, UT won't have a viable option at tight end. There are numerous can't-get-hurt situations in Knoxville.
But I've said it all offseason with everyone on deck and I'll say it again now that Rogers has jumped ship: The Tennessee Volunteers have got to run the football effectively to be successful right now and in the future. Neal is the man for the job, and I believe he's up to it.
In this league, we're spoiled watching greatness. Alabama's Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson have set the standard the past three years of what a true workhorse SEC running back looks like. Marcus Lattimore should carry on that tradition this season at South Carolina as a Heisman hopeful and bruiser in the backfield. Michael Dyer provided that weapon for Auburn before he was booted off the team; same for Isaiah Crowell at Georgia.
It may be difficult to see Neal being that type of talent as those guys, and it may be stupid of me to argue that he can at least put up those types of numbers, but let's just examine why it may not be the most far-fetched thing you've heard today.
Trent Richardson is 5-9, 228. He ran a 4.45 at the combine. Mark Ingram is 5-10, 215. He ran a 4.53. Lattimore is 6-feet, 220 and runs a 4.58. Dyer is 5-9, 210 and ran a 4.48. Crowell is 5-11, 215 and ran a 4.43.
In comparison, Neal is a workout monster as well. Though Richardson and Ingram are probably stronger, the Vols junior running back is 5-11, 211 pounds. He owns every strength and conditioning record except one in the history of Tennessee running backs. According to GoVols247.com Neal is three reps behind Tauren Poole in 225-pound bench press, but he owns the school records at his position in everything else. He squats more than 500 pounds, bench presses more than 400, owns a 42-inch vertical, broad jumps 10 feet, 6 inches and runs an incredible 4.36 40-yard dash.
Basically, he could nearly out-run a Ford Pinto in a dead sprint from Knoxville back to his hometown of Fayetteville, Ga.
All those numbers are wonderful to look at, but listen, I didn't just fall off the turnip truck. I know there is a such thing as a workout freak who cannot play football. I also know there are other factors involved, like even Adrian Peterson couldn't have run behind the line UT trotted out there last season. It's true that none of those gaudy strength and conditioning numbers equate to field vision or, ultimately, statistics. All I'm saying is that the size is there, the speed is there, and the potential is there. Are the intangibles? We're going to get to see.
Then there's the argument that, "Well, if Neal was worth anything, he'd have been running last year. He must stink because I don't remember seeing him that much."
The fact is Neal didn't have many opportunities. Last year's Vols averaged just 90.1 rushing yards per game. The team averaged 2.8 yards per carry and ran 392 times. Now, take Neal's numbers: He ran 27 times for 134 yards, a 5.0 average and two touchdowns. In the limited times he carried the ball, he actually managed to move it forward.
Then, all of a sudden, he was moved to wide receiver. Even there, he showed what kind of athlete he is, catching 13 passes for 269 yards, a 20.7 yards per catch clip and a long touchdown catch.
So, why did Derek Dooley move him? There are several reasons, actually.
- First and foremost, if you remember, the Vols had senior Tauren Poole coming off a 1,000-yard junior season, and with the running woes, you figure if anybody could get it going, it would be somebody who'd been through the battles before.
- Second, though he never flashed any field vision, Marlin Lane showed a knack for getting into the end zone during the first part of the season.
- Thirdly, by the time Neal was moved, Hunter had gone down with his ACL injury and UT probably saw the writing on the wall in the running game.
- Finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- Neal struggled hanging onto the football. As small as the Vols' room for error was last season, turnovers were the last thing they needed.
Well, Neal hasn't fumbled the ball once this preseason, according to coaches. That's not hyperbole, either. New running backs coach Jay Graham worked with all his players on that area of the game, putting them through drills designed to create adverse situations for them to hang onto the football the entire spring. The players continued that through summer workouts and into fall practice. That work has paid off at least so far for Neal. He has gone from butterfingered to sure-handed, at least in practice.
So, do the Vols have a workhorse on their hands? If they do, Neal is the guy. Second-string running back Devrin Young is more of a change-of-pace player who can provide an offensive spark but probably won't ever be a 25-carries-a-game guy. Lane may get there, but he's yet proven inconsistent and doesn't have the field vision of Neal.
What about that offensive line? Well, it depends on who you believe. Can the exact same group [with the addition of monstrous sophomore and former blue-chip recruit Antonio "Tiny" Richardson] make strides from being an embarrassment to an actual strength? We all know that offensive line is one of the places you see the largest production leaps when players enter their upperclassman years. New coach Sam Pittman seems confident, as do his players. Dooley even believes it's a strength. Whether that's lip service or not remains to be seen. But if they are truly that much better, Neal won't have that excuse.
All the ingredients reportedly are there. Neal has the size, he has the speed, he has the ability. His numbers last year in a dismal season doesn't suggest he had anything to do with the struggles. He has an improved offensive line, and he also wants to prove that running back is where he belongs. He has a goal of a 1,000-yard season. If he gets to that number, UT will probably be a lot better than most prognosticators believe.
I'm not saying to take those dreams of Bray and his receiving corps being a team strength and squash them. Not at all. But a very good Neal will result in an even better passing game. Why can't we have both? There isn't any reason why we can't.
It's time for Rajion Neal to produce, and it's time for UT to have a factor in the running game again. I believe it's going to happen, and I believe it's going to start on Friday night. Neal's homecoming is also going to be his breakout party.