The sideline welcoming committee was impressed.
As Rajion Neal made his way off the field following his 12-yard touchdown run during Saturday night’s preseason opener at Tennessee, two of the biggest stars in the Green Bay Packers’ galaxy awaited his arrival: Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson.
Although the soaked-to-the-bone, poncho-wearing quarterback and No. 1 receiver were sitting the Packers’ 20-16 loss out, Neal’s touchdown brought them to their feet. In a crowded backfield where the top three on the depth chart – Eddie Lacy, James Starks and DuJuan Harris – have all been the team’s lead back at one point in their careers, Neal’s five-carry, 39-yard performance made an impression.
“Aaron and Jordy and all those guys gave me handshakes and told me they like the way I run,” Neal recalled in the Packers’ auxiliary locker room Monday afternoon. “It was definitely a moment you’ll remember.”
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Neal intends to have plenty more of those kinds of moments over the next three weeks, even though a knee injury he suffered later in the game on a kickoff return had him on the sideline for practice Monday.
“I definitely feel like with three more preseason games, there’s still a whole to prove and a lot more fun to be had,” Neal said. When someone pointed out to him that three more preseason games would mean he expects to play next Saturday at St. Louis despite his knee injury, Neal replied, “I’ve got to play. There ain’t no way around it. Being in the position I’m in, I can’t afford it.”
Despite his solid size and a good pro day showing – not to mention that he ran 215 times for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns last year as a University of Tennessee senior – Neal went undrafted this spring, then signed with the Packers despite their obvious backfield depth.
Although Lacy, the NFL’s reigning offensive rookie of the year, didn’t play against the Titans, Starks carried six times for 49 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown, and Harris added an 11-yard run and a 40-yard kickoff return. But after an up-and-down college career that saw him play as a true freshman, move to receiver as a sophomore, move back to running back as a junior and miss essentially four games with an ankle injury and finally see extended action as a senior, he is genuinely happy for any NFL opportunity he gets.
“Honestly, when I come in every day, I just make sure I have fun. I run the ball the way that I did in college and high school to get me to this point, I try to go out and enjoy practice, just being around the guys and having this opportunity,” Neal said. “I just don’t put too much pressure on myself. I make sure I go out there and enjoy the two, three reps they give me, or on some days, the 10. And I think that’s the big deal for me, just that I go out there and have fun, just cut it and let it loose.”
That’s what he did on Saturday night, and it got people’s attention.
“I thought he ran strong,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “I thought he did a nice job running his course. Obviously, you like the finish on the touchdown run. I thought he played very well.”
Although Neal’s reps have been limited in practice, he had flashed before Saturday’s game. Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum had also mentioned him as a viable option as a kickoff returner, although Neal was injured on his one kickoff return against the Titans.
“Every day is big for a rookie, because you haven’t done anything. Every day you have to go out and prove your worth,” running backs coach Sam Gash said. “You don’t love rookies up because they really have not done anything – regardless of what they do in practice. [That only] shows that they know what they’re supposed to do. Now you have to wait and see based on game-time play how they respond to it.”
One game in, Neal has responded well. Now, he knows he has to build upon it.
“At the end of the day there’s still a whole lot to be seen and proven,” he said. “I had fun and I thought I was productive in the little time I had available to me.
“It definitely gives you a little boost of confidence and it just helps you get a little more comfortable, take a little bit of pressure off you, just to let you know, you know what? I can ball here.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.