Aug 27, 2013
By Brian Rice
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- There isn't a lot of rah-rah stuff coming from the running back drills at Tennessee football practice.
That's not a commentary on the way things are going for a unit that expects to be leaned on in the 2013 season. In fact, it's not a bad thing at all. The constant state of motivation and verbal correction is exactly how running backs coach Robert Gillespie wants his players to train.
With Patterson in the NFL and the passing game looking to build experience, the running backs knew much of the focus would be on them in fall camp. Gillespie has built the unit, not by lobbing praise for a job well done, but by staying on the players every day.
"It's tough, mentally tough, emotional," Neal said of the interaction with his position coach. "You really just have to rely on your technique and your confidence in yourself. He told us going in that he's not big on giving compliments or praise, but he's definitely going to push us and work. On gameday, that's the day he's going to be our fan and praise us and give us a little lift."
Gillespie, who rushed for 1,854 and 16 touchdowns as a running back at Florida from 1998-2001, said his coaching style had paid dividends in the improvement the back had shown heading into the opener.
"My players know that I don't hand out a lot of praise," Gillespie said. "All of those guys have been working hard and making strides getting better."
Lane identified with Gillespie's style right away and found that it was exactly what he needed to improve his game.
"It helps a lot," Lane said. "With Coach Gillespie, if we go out there and run 400 yards, he's always going to tell us what we did wrong. To be great, you have to have someone that's going to push you on the negative to get you better."
And running behind the Volunteer offensive line, them of 114 starts across five players, has Lane excited for what a full season of running behind all that experience will produce.
"It's a lot of confidence," Neal said when asked to describe the feeling of lining up behind the UT line. "A running back is nothing without his offensive line and I think once people realize that and know it starts with them, we'll be fine."
LEADING FROM THE BACKFIELD
Rajion Neal has finally realized that this is his senior year.
Neal knew that his last seven runs through the T were coming up, but didn't quite understand that until recently.
"It hit me when I got that Austin Peay notebook," said Neal. "I realized that there would be no more me running through the T in late August or early September. That is when it really kind of set in."
Neal knows, as a senior on Team 117 he is looked up at to lead.
"I think it just comes with the territory," said Neal. "I take pride in that and I do think it is a little more pressure on me, but that is what I signed up for. I am happy to be in that situation to help lead these guys and put a little of that weight on my back."
Though he is not a vocal person, his teammates see the hard work that Neal puts into practice each and every day.
"He's just coming in each day working, competing, doing the right thing, doing his job, just getting better each day, and that's all we can ask," said A.J. Johnson. "I think he's playing the best he's been playing so far. He's running the ball harder. He's running the ball faster, reading his keys right and all that. I know he's going to be, he's going to go out there and do his thing."
As a fellow member of the backfield, Marlin Lane sees Neal from the same perspective.
"He's more hungry this year, being a senior," said Lane. "Just the look in his eyes and his work ethic. When we're out there working together, I see him trying to get better."
Neal has big plans this season. Hampered by an ankle injury last year, Neal fell shy of 1,000 yards rushing, a goal for this year. To go with a couple hundred through the air of course.
Brian Randolph believes the way the Neal has been going, he will be able to achieve that goal.
"He runs the ball with balance," said Randolph. "It takes more than one person to tackle him, and he is a downhill runner. He hits the hole faster, and he has good breakaway speed. It often takes gang tackling to get him down. He is just a hard person to tackle."
"He is the best I have ever seen him right now. I think he is going to show a lot of people a lot of things."
LANE BEING TrusTed
Being a member of the Tennessee Volunteers football team is a privilege to many, and when junior running back Marlin Lane runs through the T on Saturday, he knows he will feel a strong sense of appreciation for wearing orange.
After sitting out this spring and spending part of preseason camp in a no-contact green jersey, the Florida native has worked extra hard to prove to his coaches and Team 117 that he is ready to help lead them to a winning season.
"I feel very confident," said Lane. "My body of work, getting back out there and moving around, showing the coaches that they can use me and play me and building that trust back."
Lane has been able to lean on teammate Rajion Neal since coming back this summer.
"We just go out there and just compliment each other on good runs," Lane said, "Just talk to each other on what we need to work on to get better."
Lane has noticed that his fellow running back has improved right alongside him.
"When we're out there working together, I see him trying to get better," Lane said.
Not only has Lane had his teammates pressuring him to improve but his running back coach, Robert Gillespie, as well. Gillespie has continued to stay on him at practice.
"He's always going to tell us what we did wrong," said Lane. "To be great, you have to have somebody that's going to push you."
And push they will, together--right through the T on Saturday night in anticipation of starting off the 2013 season 1-0.