After bringing in a couple of the very best high school running back prospects in the country during last year’s signing period, the University of Tennessee continued to stockpile talent in the backfield as they pulled away a highly regarded running back prospect out of Georgia late in the process. Raijon Neal had been committed to Dan Mullen and the Mississippi State Bulldogs since August, but late in the process things changed for Neal and he decided to become a Tennessee Volunteer just before signing day.
While the former regime in Knoxville had other targets like Florida commit, Mack Brown higher on their list, one coach always kept an eye on Neal, despite his early commitment to the Bulldogs. Lance Thompson has always had a great relationship with Raijon Neal and his coach at Sandy Creek High in Tyrone, GA. While Kiffin and Coach O were looking at other prospects, Thompson kept the door open for Neal and his persistence paid off once the coaching changes took place at Tennessee.
Once Neal had a chance to speak with Dooley, he knew there was something special there and decided to make an official visit happen on the third weekend of January. After a great visit to Knoxville and the subsequent in-home with the two coaches that he had grown so fond of, Neal decided to make the switch from Starkville to Knoxville and helped the Vols keep the backfield loaded for years to come.
The four-star talent is a very well put together kid that does a little bit of everything out of the backfield and has a strong work ethic that has made him one of the top running backs in the country coming out of high school. He made a late push in the rankings after showing off his skills at a high level during his senior year at Sandy Creek.
Here is what ESPNU and Scouts, Inc had to say about the powerful runner…
Neal is an underrated back who should see his BCS stock start to rise. A well-rounded runner, he has a lot of attributes sought out at the next level. Is thick and compact with very good body composition. For a bigger back, he flashes good in-line feet and quickness. Able to see and hit the small creases. Makes subtle yet sharp, decisive cuts through traffic. Can stop-start and change speeds to remain shifty. A natural runner with an innate ability to feel defenders closing and holes opening. Lateral agility bouncing outside is better-than-adequate. Very difficult to get a clean shot on with his quick feet and low running base. Absorbs the big hit and keeps his balance. Runs with a low center of gravity and quickly gains north-south momentum when he finds a seam allowing him to break through a lot of initial arm-tackles. Shows he can be a very physical runner and lower the shoulder to get the tough yards when needed. Keeps his strong thighs churning to help break a lot of lower arm-tackles; but yards after contact can be inconsistent. Legs can go dead on contact at times and he’s not a consistent pile mover. Strong frame but he can run high and not behind his pads leading to lower solo tackles. Lacks great downhill burst and explosiveness out of his cuts to help him power through tackles. We like his in-line feet and agility but feel at the next level he will need to become more of plant and go downhill runner. Flashes a sneaky extra gear but lacks elusiveness and top-end speed when he breaks free in the second level. That said, we still feel like Neal could develop into an every down back with the eventual between the tackles size/strength to carry the load while remaining durable with his shiftiness. Look for recruiting to heat up.
Whenever you are able to add a high quality player that late in the recruiting process, it has to be considered a huge win. It is even more rewarding when you are able to “steal” him from an in conference foe, especially when it is a school that seems to be a just a few players short of turning things around. For Coach Dooley, bringing in Raijon Neal at the last second has to be considered one of his more impressive feats so far during his time in Knoxville. The late additions of Neal, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers not only added huge stars to the Vols’ lineup, but they took some talent away from some SEC foes.