BY DREW EDWARDS
KNOXVILLE -- This time last year, Rajion Neal was working the night shift.
Along with most of his classmates, the sophomore tailback opened the 2010 fall camp working with the rookies at night, separated from their veteran teammates.
Today, though, Neal and the rest of his classmates were out on Haslam Field in the heat of the day for the first practice of fall camp.
And -- besides the temperature -- there was at least one key difference between this year and last.
"Last year, we were definitely learning -- and kind of lost," Neal said. "We were out there with our class having fun, but now it's time to definitely be serious, contribute and help this team."
Plenty of Neal's classmates made a big impact last season. In fact, of the Vols' seven returning starters on offense, five are sophomores. On defense, safety sophomore Brent Brewer was another newcomer who ended the season with a starting job.
Neal found a way to contribute, rushing 46 times of 197 yards, second only to Tauren Poole's team-high 1,034 yards. So did players like Justin Hunter, Tyler Bray and offensive linemen Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone. All four of those players enter fall camp not only as veterans but as key players.
But despite higher expectations, believe it or not, there's a little less apprehension. That's a product of experience and knowing what to expect, says defensive end Jacques Smith.
"There's less anxiety," said Smith, who played in all 13 games last season and enters fall camp as a projected starter at end. "I'm out here, and I'm comfortable. I'm able to talk with my coaches and be comfortable about it, and not have that freshman mentality of being scared to be wrong."
Shedding the freshman mentality doesn't always happen so quickly. For others, like Marsalis Teague, it does. As a freshman in 2009, Teague started the opener at wide receiver. As a sophomore, he moved to cornerback, and he's projected to start there again this fall.
Having successfully made the transition from being an over-achieving freshman to productive sophomore starter (while changing positions, no less), Teague said it's all a confidence game.
"I believe it's just your confidence level," said Teague, a junior. "When you play as a freshman, you know what to expect as a sophomore, and you always want to out-do yourself. Once you realize what you did your freshman year, it's like, now it's time to get it going. That experience goes a long way."
That experience continued during the summer as well. During voluntary seven-on-seven workouts, Teague said several sophomores took leadership roles, including Bray.
"We had a real strong offseason, and a lot of guys started to embrace that type of role," Teague said. "To me, the main thing was that. Tyler Bray, a sophomore quarterback, he's out there leading it. The receivers are coming in on their own.
"We would come in as a different units, and we'd see each other in there working. Just pushing each other in the weight room. I feel like the fact people are doing that, it helped ease the transition from freshman year to sophomore year."
Before long, those sophomores will be juniors and seniors. That isn't lost on Neal, either.
"In a few years, it's going to be our team," Neal said. "But with a lot of us playing last year, it gave us great experience, and it gave us some foresight as far as seeing what's going on out there. We're going to have experience. We're all looking forward to it, and we're ready to help this team."