Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane: Running Hard
Want to know about Tennessee’s running backs? Ask those that have had to tackle them during preseason camp.
Senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane have certainly impressed their teammates throughout August. How? Tough, physical running is first and foremost.
“Rajion is the best I’ve ever seen since I first got here,” said redshirt sophomore safety Brian Randolph. “I think he’s going to show a lot of people a lot of things. I just feel like last year he got tackled by one person but this year his balance is crazy.
“When people hit him in the legs, he often stays up. It takes gang tackling to get him down. He’s just a hard person to tackle.”
Neal, who is listed as the starter but will split carries with Lane, has also impressed his teammates from the neck up. UT’s defense sees as much before the ball is even snapped.
“The way he looks at the defense now,” sophomore safety LaDarrell McNeil said when asked what impresses him about Neal. “You can tell he’s reading the defense like a quarterback and makes sure he protects [the quarterback on passing plays] as well as runs.”
It doesn’t stop with Neal. After some off-field issues, Lane has earned the trust of his teammates and coaches. Sophomore Tom Smith has also been impressive in preseason camp. Redshirt freshman Alden Hill was the talk of spring camp before he recently slipped behind Smith on the depth chart.
“I can tell coach G is getting them ready, all the running backs, not just Rajion Neal,” McNeil said, referring to running backs coach Robert Gillespie. “You can tell they’re over there helping each other out.”
Neal led the Vols in rushing last season with 708 yards despite missing the Alabama and Mississippi State games with a sprained ankle. He hopes to top that total this season.
“I definitely have some personal goals, a thousand yard rusher then a couple hundred in receiving,” the Fayetteville, Ga., native said. “The ultimate goal is to have a winning program.”
Another goal might be surviving Gillespie’s intense coaching style. The longtime running backs coach and former Florida standout tailback doesn’t have a problem critiquing his players – often loudly. Praise is hard to come by.
“It is tough,” Neal said. “It is mentally and emotionally tough. I think you really have to rely on your technique and the confidence that you have within yourself. He told us upfront that he is not big on giving compliments and praise, but he is definitely going to push us to work. On game day that is the day he will be our fan, praiser or someone to give us a little lift.”
UT’s offensive line and tailbacks likely don’t know how good they can be at running the ball since they played in a pass-first and pass-often offense last season. Getting off to a good start on the ground this season is key.
“It is big,” Neal said. “I feel like that would give the team confidence including the coaching staff. It will be the first time for them really to be playing with us and having them on our side. Kind of like letting us run free, giving us that little push off the nest and letting us go fly. I think that is big giving everybody, the community, fan base something to look forward to.”
Although Austin Peay might not be an upper-echelon opponent, Saturday is a chance for UT’s coaches to further compare Neal and Lane. With carries constantly at stake, every snap matters for Neal and Lane.
“I think it will be a big evaluation,” Lane said. “Just because they are not the caliber of the competitors that we normally play against, you can’t take them lightly. This is still going to be a measuring tool for a lot of guys to see if they can even play at this level and against this type of competition before we get into SEC play.
So far, their SEC teammates have been impressed.