Neal, a senior from Fayetteville, Ga., has rushed for 317 yards over his last two games. He has 616 yards rushing this season to rank 11th among all Football Bowl Subdivision players. His average of 102.7 yards per game ranks 25th nationally.
“He’s been a warrior for us,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “He’s run tough and he’s run physically.”
One week after rushing for a career-high 169 yards against South Alabama, Neal ran for 148 yards Saturday in a 34-31 overtime loss to No. 7 Georgia. Neal had a career-high 28 carries plus five catches against Georgia while running back Marlin Lane was sidelined with what coaches described as a lower extremity injury.
Rather than wearing down amid that heavy workload, Neal grew stronger as the game wore on. He rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries after halftime.
“I feel once you get in that rhythm, you’ve kind of got a feel for the defense, you’ve kind of got a feel for the guys on the other side and kind of get in the flow of everything,” Neal said. “It definitely helps.”
Neal is on pace to rush for over 1,200 yards, which would make him Tennessee’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Tauren Poole gained 1,034 yards in 2010. Neal led Tennessee with 708 yards rushing last season.
“He’s playing with a level of toughness,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “We challenged him with his durability. He’s running with good pad level, and he’s very determined right now.”
Neal had a similarly fast start last year. He rushed for 500 yards through the first half of the season before an ankle injury caused him to miss two games. He wasn’t as effective upon his return.
Neal believes he’s now a better player who understands the demands of the position and realizes what to expect. He’s gaining 5.7 yards per carry this year after averaging 4.5 yards per rush last season.
“He’s been decisive in his decision making and he’s run hard,” quarterback Justin Worley said. “He hasn’t stutter-stepped one bit. He’s hit holes. He’s tried to run people over on the sideline. He’s running with some confidence.”
Tennessee needs Neal to maintain this momentum through an entire season. The Vols (3-3, 0-2 SEC) have this week off before hosting No. 14 South Carolina on Oct. 19.
The coaching staff’s faith in Neal was evident against Georgia when the Vols handed him the ball on two fourth-and-1 situations in the fourth quarter. Neal ran inside for a yard on one of those plays. On the other, he took a pitch left and raced 43 yards.
“That’s something that you have to prove during camp, in spring, in practice,” Neal said. “I think showing them that we could do that time after time throughout practices and different scrimmages, that’s what gave them the confidence to call it and put it in our hands.”
Neal says “we” and “our” instead of “I’’ or “my” because he believes he owes much of his success to Tennessee’s veteran offensive line. Neal’s recent surge started when the running backs started spending more time with linemen in the film room.
“We’ve started actually going in and watching film with the o-line and kind of seeing what they see and what they’re expecting from us,” Neal said. “I think that helped a lot.”
Neal’s recent production is making those film viewings much more enjoyable.