Rajion Neal begged. Coach Butch Jones listened. What followed very well could be the turning point of Tennessee's football season.
The Vols trailed Georgia by seven and faced 4th-and-1 from their own 34-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Jones called timeout and knew that he needed to show faith in an offense that frankly hadn't proven it deserved that honor all season.
Rather than getting the ball on a straight handoff up the gut, Neal knew every Bulldog on the field would be crowding the line. He wanted a pitch to the outside. Jones obliged.
The ensuing 43-yard scamper by UT's senior running back set the Vols up for a game-tying touchdown. Neal commented during the postgame radio show:
I hate to say it but it's something I kind of begged for. They had 11 in the box or at least 10, and I said, 'Coach, if you pitch it to me, I won't ever stop running.' You have to respect Coach Jones for making that decision. He put his livelihood on the line, and we went out and converted.
The fact that Jones gave Neal a voice and actually listened at such a crucial point of the game shows just how much confidence UT's staff now has in Neal.
|Freshman||46 rush||197 yds||4.3 avg||0 TDs|
|Sophomore||27 rush||134 yds||5.0 avg||2 TDs|
|Junior||156 rush||708 yds||4.5 avg||5 TDs|
|Senior (6 games)||108 rush||616 yds||5.7 avg||7 TDs|
Though the Vols eventually lost 34-31 to the Dawgs in overtime, they went for it twice more on fourth down. Twice more, they converted. They also made the effort play to win in overtime when Alton Howard extended the football toward the goal line for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown had he not fumbled.
No matter who drew up the play, that Jones call and Neal conversion turned around UT's offensive production. Following that play, Tennessee was a different, confident team.
The senior went on to pile up 148 rushing yards on 28 carries and added five catches for 19 more yards against UGA.
There are few players in the country running with as much confidence as Neal right now. He's on a tear.
"Rajion Neal's a warrior," Jones said after the game. "He's playing like we expect our seniors to play. He's giving us everything he has. He's been injured and he's been a warrior. He's added another spark to us."
The 5'11", 212-pound tailback may seem like he's overachieving, but he's really just finally living up to expectations. Prior to this season, Neal has been too timid and has also struggled with his field vision.
He was criticized by Derek Dooley and his staff for inconsistency, and when Jones arrived, the new coach also wondered aloud through preseason drills why Neal's physical attributes weren't translating into prime production.
Enter new running backs coach Robert Gillespie. Once he arrived, his tough-love approach may not have been exactly what Neal wanted. But it certainly has worked.
According to Steve Megargee of The Associated Press, Neal said this of Gillespie this preseason:
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
He puts a chip on your shoulder. He kind of keeps it real uncut and raw, no sugarcoating, no rubbing me the right way and making me feel good. It's truly what everybody potentially may really feel or think about me.
He tells me I'm stiff, I can't block. He says I'm not fast. He pretty much told me I'm not a good tailback.
That motivation has fueled Neal. Gillespie is still reluctant to dish out praise:
#Vols RBs coach Robert Gillespie when I asked him if something clicked last two weeks for Rajion Neal: 'Our offensive line's really good.'— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) October 9, 2013
Even so, since backfield mate Marlin Lane got dinged up against South Alabama, Neal has carried Tennessee's offense on his shoulders. He has 53 carries for 317 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games.
His 616 rushing yards ranks second in the SEC, 35 yards behind Arkansas freshman sensation Alex Collins, according to ESPN.com. Neal also is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has scored seven touchdowns.
Those numbers far exceed his previous high-water mark when he was second in the league in rushing after five games in 2012 before getting hurt and never regaining form.
He's UT's offensive MVP this season.
Neal has come a long way from a guy who was losing carries to other runners to being the Vols' workhorse.
They'll need him for the upcoming grueling stretch. But perhaps Neal's greatest value comes in his urging teammates to put the disappointing UGA loss behind them.
He has had to do that with criticism and hard times in his career, so when he talks, they should listen.
I think you kind of have to move past it. You've got to kind of put your head down and let it go and try not to dwell on the past. Take a peek back there and remind yourself of things you don't want to do. But I think the biggest thing is don't dwell on it.
All quotes were transcribed from videos posted on UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted.