KNOXVILLE — Tauren Poole seriously considered leaving the Tennessee football team after a 2009 season that found him as low as fourth on the Volunteers’ running back depth chart.
He had dazzled his teammates and fans during last season’s spring and fall camps with his speed and knack for evading tackles. As a sophomore he knew he didn’t have much of a chance at unseating senior leader Montario Hardesty as the starter but was still surprised to find himself behind freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku.
“I performed well in the offseason last year. Every time. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get that shot, but it made me the person that I am today,” Poole said.
Poole’s patience has paid off, and now the Toccoa, Ga., native is poised to become a starter under new coach Derek Dooley.
His stats aren’t indicative of someone who’s a surefire starter. He gained 86 yards on 22 carries as a freshman in 2008. In 2009, he carried the ball 10 times for 85 yards, including a long run of 34 yards against a Western Kentucky team that would end the season winless. He’s never scored a touchdown.
Former coach Lane Kiffin seemed determined to give Brown, the top prospect in Kiffin’s only recruiting class at Tennessee, more shots at playing last season, even though Poole showed more promise during the offseason. Brown finished the season with 476 yards and three touchdowns on 101 carries but opted to leave Tennessee after Kiffin bolted for Southern California in January.
Oku is still in the mix, redshirt freshman Toney Williams is back from last year’s season-ending knee injury and Dooley has added freshman Raijon Neal to the roster. Still, the Vols who face the running backs daily at practice insist its Poole who deserves the start.
“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people this year,” Tennessee linebacker Austin Johnson said. “You can get the biggest hit on him, and he can stay up. It’s unbelievable.”
Poole was plenty impressive during this year’s spring practices. During the Orange and White spring game, he led the offense with 101 all-purpose yards, 58 yards receiving on three catches and 50 yards rushing on 12 carries.
Dooley praised him in the spring for being consistently productive in practice, and the coach has seen more of the same during the Vols’ first week of fall camp.
“Incredible work ethic, incredible attitude, runs hard, tremendous effort, great leader. He’s doing quite well,” Dooley said.
And though Poole is blunt about feeling unfairly passed over last season, he remains one of the most team-oriented players in Tennessee’s lineup.
When Brown first considered leaving Tennessee after Kiffin’s departure in January, Poole tried to convince him otherwise. Later in the spring, Poole was given Tennessee’s 2010 Fourth Quarter Award, acknowledging his positive attitude, discipline, toughness, effort and dedication to the team.
Poole also knows he can’t waste the opportunity he’s been waiting for patiently.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot to prove,” he said. “Nothing is guaranteed in this league, and I’ve learned that a lot over the years that I’ve been here. I’m just ready to go. I’m really excited about it.”
That attitude and the patience Poole has shown has in turn inspired his teammates.
“A lot of people would just leave,” Oku said. “He just sat back there and said, ‘Just be patient, just believe in God.’ I take my role really seriously because Tauren did the same thing last year.
“You just follow behind Tauren, and you’ll be all right.”