KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee's Rajion Neal is coping with a bruised ego a year after an injured ankle ended his quest to become the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher.
Neal attributes his attitude to new running backs coach Robert Gillespie, who is toughening Tennessee's most experienced offensive playmaker by pointing out all of his shortcomings. Neal said that constructive criticism "puts a chip on your shoulder" and inspires him to work harder.
"He puts a chip on your shoulder," Neal said. "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."
Gillespie simply considers that part of his responsibility.
Neal and running back Marlin Lane are two of the only proven skill-position players on a Tennessee offense breaking in a first-year starting quarterback and a new receiving corps. That makes it essential for Gillespie to get the best out of them.
"My job is to coach, critique and correct," Gillespie said. "None of that's fun. My job is to find one thing for you to get better at, and once you get better at it, I'll find the next thing that you've got to get better at. It's not my job to be the fan.
"You have Twitter, Facebook, you guys to tell them how good they are. My job is to coach them. My job is to always find ways to make them better. When I do that, they'll respect me more and more. It's not about trying to gain friendships. It's about making those guys the best football players they can be."
Gillespie said he didn't watch much film of what these running backs accomplished under a previous staff last year, when Neal rushed for 708 yards and five touchdowns. He looked at what they were doing at the start of spring practice and saw plenty of room for improvement.
"He tells me I'm stiff, I can't block," Neal said. "He says I'm not fast. He pretty much told me I'm not a good tailback."
Neal's early season performance last year suggested otherwise.
Five weeks into the season, Neal ranked second in the SEC with 460 total yards rushing and fourth in the league with 92 yards rushing per game. But he injured an ankle October 13 in a 41-31 loss at Mississippi State, sat out Tennessee's next two games and wasn't as effective upon his return.
Neal couldn't help but wonder what he might have accomplished if he'd stayed healthy.
"Honestly, I thought about it a lot," Neal said. "It hurt. (There was) a lot of curiosity. But at the end of the day, when Gillespie came in, he said, 'Don't worry about that. That was nothing, what you did. Anybody could do that. Let's come in this year, reinvent yourself, knock down the old stuff and let's build on something with a different blueprint.' "
Neal says Gillespie constantly reminds him to develop into a more physical runner. Gillespie also preaches the importance of doing the little things and taking care of responsibilities in pass protection.
"I tell our backs all the time, you may touch the ball 20 times at most," Gillespie said. "What are you going to do the other 60 plays in a game? I think that's what makes backs great, not just when you touch the ball, but the way you carry out your fakes, the way you chip block. I think that's the part they're starting to understand. We hold them to a really high standard."
Slowly but surely, Neal is starting to live up to that standard. Tennessee coach Butch Jones says he has noticed a difference in Neal recently.
"I see a level of intensity," Jones said. "I see a level of confidence because I think he knows he's worked exceptionally hard."
Lane says he believes Neal is hungrier this year as he enters his senior season. Neal's eager to prove his worth to the new staff while ending his college career on a winning note after three straight losing seasons.
"It's scary to know at the end of the year, no matter what, I've got to leave," Neal said. "It's either playing at the next level or going to get a 9 to 5. There's no going back."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)