There were times this preseason where I trumpeted Rajion Neal as having the opportunity to be the complete running back the Tennessee Volunteers needed.
Five games into the season, the Fayetteville, Ga., native is beginning to blossom into that steady -- not spectacular -- running back. Missing from Neal's early-season resume is that highlight-reel run where he breaks a couple of tackles and out-sprints everyone to the checkerboards. But Neal has certainly impressed.
How much? Take into consideration that Georgia's spectacular freshman running back Todd Gurley is one of the toasts of the league in his first year as a starter. Neal -- though a junior -- also is playing his first season as a starter and is just 40 yards behind Gurley. Neal's numbers thus far are this: 103 carries, 460 yards, a 4.5 ypc average and four touchdowns. He also has added 13 catches for 105 yards and a couple more scores.
He has gotten progressively better as well. Against N.C. State, he had 22 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown, adding two catches for -2 yards. Against Georgia State, he had 13 carries for 65 yards, two touchdowns and had a catch for 12 yards. Then against the Gators, Neal was the most effective he'd been to that point, running 23 times for 87 yards and catching two passes for 20 yards without a score. The past two weeks, Neal has been brilliant. Against the Akron Zips, Neal had 22 carries for 151 yards and caught three passes for 22 yards and a touchdown. Finally against a good Georgia defense, Neal finished with 23 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. He also had five catches for 53 yards and another score.
We're watching Neal gain more confidence every week. Against UGA, Marlin Lane and Devrin Young were effective as well. We'll need those guys in this brutal October stretch if we're going to make any kind of significant jump this season. Now, onto the trending report.
- The Running Game. The Vols finished with 40 carries for 197 yards and a 4.9 ypc. Those are not out-of-this-world numbers, but within the context of the game, it was probably the most impressive rushing performance of Jim Chaney's tenure as Tennessee's offensive coordinator. The offensive line opened holes, Neal ran with effectiveness and when the game wore into the fourth quarter, the Vols were the one setting the tempo on drives with the running game. It was the establishment of the balance we've all been wanting to see.
- Beast-Proofing the Dawgs' D. Very rarely did the announcers call the name of Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones on Saturday. The Vols did a great job of neutralizing him as well as anybody has this season. Jones still had eight tackles and 0.5 tackles for a loss, but that's really quiet for him. The junior from Carver (Columbus) High School is the No. 1 overall prospect on Mel Kiper Jr.'s big board this year and UT's gameplan against him may work against Jadeveon Clowney down the road. It was impressive.
- Making Breaks. As we've yapped the past couple days, there's really not a lot of positives to take from giving up 51 points to a rival, but Sal Sunseri's defense also made plays that got Tennessee back in a game it very easily could have gotten blown out of. Byron Moore's pick-six and two forced fumbles that turned into points were HUGE in the first half. So while there is plenty of drawing-board work to be done, UT made some big defensive plays, and that can win you football games.
- CP's Run. It really got lost in the ridiculousness of that game, but Cordarrelle Patterson's end around where he first appeared to look to pass, tucked it, reversed his field and just out-ran everybody was one of the most impressive plays you'll see all season. I certainly hope that he will come back for another year because -- as his drop and botched routes prove -- he's FAR from a finished product, but Patterson is the best athlete in the Southeastern Conference at his size. He really can be something special once he learns to focus.
- Calm In the Storm. As Derek Dooley said, the Vols got hit by a first-half freight train. They responded. There never seemed to be much panic -- only intensity -- in the eyes of a head coach who I believe has been lost at times on the sideline. Then there was Chaney, who called a brilliant game, mixing runs and passes in what was his finest hour even in a losing effort. I was very impressed with this team -- and the coaching staff -- in responding to adversity.
- A Rushing River of Red. First the numbers: Georgia had 39 carries for 282 yards -- a 7.2 ypc average. Keith Marshall had 10 for 164 yards and two touchdowns, providing the WOW factor for the Dawgs while fellow freshman Todd Gurley was the workhorse, carrying it 24 times for 130 yards and three more touchdowns. The Vols simply had no answers. When UGA needed to power it, they ran over us. When they needed long touchdowns, they went untouched for long touchdowns. It was embarrassing, and it has got to get fixed.
- Poor Run Fits. Yes, I'm so ticked about the run game that I'm going to make another bullet about it. Curt Maggitt and Jacques Smith collapsed so often, so many times, on Saturday that there were times that Marshall and Gurley never got dirty. There is a learning curve with the 3-4 defense, but there is also a little thing called discipline that has to be present. Tennessee doesn't have it defensively right now.
- Tyler Bray's Execution. What started out early as footwork that boiled down to fear wound up with our junior quarterback getting taught an important lesson the hard way. Early in the game, Bray was shying away from getting hit, throwing off his back foot, side-armed and looking mentally out of the game. Then with us needing him to produce through the game, he simply began to get too excited, missing Justin Hunter wide-open twice on crossing patterns. Then, at the end of the game, he turned it over three times -- two interceptions and a crucial fumble -- that cost us our chances to win. It was a poor game for Bray, but it wasn't because he didn't care. At the end of that game, he hurt like the rest of us. He'll learn from this and get better. He also has got to get Mychal Rivera more involved.
- Derrick Brodus. We cannot find a consistent kicker. Man, it is so frustrating. After Brodus had been money throughout the past two games, he missed an extra point and a chip-shot, 28-yard field goal and was pulled for Michael Palardy. He was visibly rattled, and while he is still probably UT's best option in short kicks, he blew a couple of opportunities to give us some momentum nudges. Those things matter.
- Our Secondary Speed. Justin Coleman gets beat entirely too much, and he's our best cornerback right now. We knew the defensive backs weren't going to be a strength, but they've been a major disappointment, and receivers are routinely blowing by them. There was a time in the preseason where it was reported that Brent Brewer was clocked at 4.48 in the 40-yard dash. That must have been timed with a broken watch. He is a linebacker, plain and simple. And if a running back gets to the second level? Forget it. He gone. Expect to see more of freshmen LaDarrell McNeil, Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray. They can't be worse.