Rajion Neal enters the 2013 season as the Tennessee Volunteers' most experienced running back. The senior rushed for a team-best 708 yards and nine all-purpose touchdowns last season in the Vols' pass-heavy offense.
Neal shared carries with returning junior back Marlin Lane, who recorded 658 yards and two touchdowns off of 120 attempts, second to Neal's team-high 156. However, with Lane serving a suspension during the team's spring practices, Neal received an increase in carries during the Vols' offseason practices and scrimmages.
Despite Lane being reinstated in June, the early advantage entering the regular season goes to Neal. While attempting to prove he can carry the load of the Vols' offense, Neal told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he was grateful for the chance to receive more reps in order to "improve his craft".
“I’m not afraid of going out there and carrying it about 20 or 30 times," Neal told the newspaper. "Sunday I might just be laying on my back, but I’m not afraid. I’m trying to show them and let them know that I’d rather die out there than die on the sidelines.”
In order to impress NFL teams, the senior running back will need to have the best season of his college career. He will benefit greatly in the Vols' new run-heavy offensive scheme.
Who will lead the Vols in rushing this season?
New head coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian ran an up-tempo offense centered around a strong rushing game while at Cincinnati. Neal's role in the Tennessee offense will be drastically changed from last season.
Under Jones and Bajakian, the Bearcats attempted 492 rushing plays and totaled 2,619 yards as a team last season. Cincinnati's leading rusher, George Winn, recorded 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on 243 carries, just 33 shy of Neal and Lane's combined total.
If Jones continues to split carries between the two backs, both will likely see an increase in productivity. However, Neal is the likely candidate to repeat as the team's leading rusher and handle the majority of attempts.
As was the case last season, an increased role will lead to a more productive season for Neal. He showed flashes of potential on big plays last season and should continue his improvement entering this season.
With a breakout season, Neal will likely gain attention from NFL teams and improve his draft stock before finishing his collegiate career.