It's a sign of the times that major issues like having a complete unknown as your starting tailback not only can't even crack the top five on our list of the most important questions for this team, but Derek Dooley doesn't even get asked about it at media days, so great are our other concerns. In any other year, figuring out exactly who this guy is who's going to be carrying the load for the running game would be at or near the top of the list.
Actually, that wasn't always true because for more than a decade, you could just assume that the starting RB for Tennessee was going to be successful...and for fifteen years, you were right. From Reggie Cobb to Travis Stephens and at all stops in between, Tennessee had great running backs on the field every Saturday.
Since 2002, things have changed. Cedric Houston did eventually team with Gerald Riggs to produce a pair of 1,000 yard efforts in 2004, but it took Houston three years to really get going. Arian Foster was great out of the gate in late 2005 and became the team's second leading rusher all-time, but also constantly caught the ire of the fanbase when things weren't going well. And there were other names in that span - Jabari Davis, LaMarcus Coker, Lennon Creer - from whom much was expected and little was delivered.
But then last year, Montario Hardesty - a guy who was behind Foster and Coker in productivity and Creer and Bryce Brown in expectation - took us back to the good ol' days with 1,345 yards, the fourth best season in school history. Hardesty was the first back since Stephens in '01 who we knew we could always count on - we put the offense on his shoulders, and we knew he could carry the load.
So now into his shoes steps Tauren Poole, a junior with 32 career carries for 171 career yards. Which group does he belong to? Will he be another forgotten name in another struggling ground game...or can he be the next great back at Tennessee?
Here's who he's not: Bryce Brown.
On paper, that seems like a bad thing. Brown was the number one player in the nation in the Class of 2009; Poole was a three star player ranked 16th among RBs in the Class of 2008 (more fun in the "recruiting rankings will only drive you to madness" genre: how many of the RBs ranked ahead of Poole in that class have amounted to much of anything?).
Brown ran for 460 yards last year as Hardesty's backup, and was, of course, the next great back at Tennessee. Even with all the issues at quarterback and on the offensive line, we would've had few doubts about Brown's ability coming into this fall. And we also would've shrugged off the whispers that Poole was actually outplaying him in practice.
Those whispers got louder when Lane Kiffin left town, and when Bryce Brown did the same during spring practice, Poole became the man.
Regardless of recruiting rankings or pedigree, in many ways it seems like a good thing he's not Bryce Brown.
Today is supposed to be the day that Brown and Dooley have their long awaited meeting. This would be their second meeting, or so it's been reported, following one on May 26 that also include Jim Chaney and Bryce's brother Arthur. It was believed at the time that a decision would come soon after; two-thirds of us at that point said Dooley should allow Brown to return to the team.
Now, it's July 26. Summer workouts have come and gone, as have 7-on-7s and all the intangible team-bonding stuff (this is where the obvious Bar Knoxville joke goes). Fall practice starts in nine days (!). Even if Brown returned now, and even if he's been working out on his own (and unless he's lifting big ol' cars and big bales of hay, he ain't in Bennie Wylie shape), he's not been a part of this team during a crucial juncture. On and off the field, he would have a long way to go to get back...and I'd wager that far less than two-thirds of us are hoping for his return at this point.
We've mentioned before that it's unfair to judge Brown's character because we don't have enough information...but with every day that's passed in this saga, it's become easier to move on without him. And even though we may not know the full story behind Brown's departure, we do know that Poole has reportedly outplayed Brown and Creer in the last two springs, still never saw the field...and he's still here.
And now, he's the man.
In our Rocky Top Tennessee 2010 annual, Wes Rucker wrote this about Poole:
Can Tauren Poole carry the offense?
The answer to this question is "yes." Just ask Poole.
"I feel like I can do anything," the junior said this spring. "That's how confident I am in myself. In every practice and every scrimmage last year, I brought it. I brought everything to the table. Why wouldn't I bring it in a game?"
Given the circumstances he's seen the last two years, this comes across less as arrogance and more as frustration that's turning into hope. The only real glimpse we got of him last year gave us more of that hope: 3 carries for 15 yards against Virginia Tech (when Brown was out with a concussion) doesn't sound like much, but on a night when Hardesty averaged only 2.2 yards per carry, it was noteworthy.
Poole didn't really go off in the Orange & White Game, but had a habit of breaking off long runs in the other spring scrimmages. He'll get more chances next month in fall scrimmages, and of course, he won't do it alone: David Oku returns as a nice change of pace, Toney Williams is finally healthy, and anything we get from Rajion Neal this year will be bonus.
But Poole is the guy who's waited his turn, even when it may have seemed (or actually been) unfair. While Bryce Brown left town and is still trying to make up his mind, Poole has stayed through all adversity and continued to work hard. He's earned the opportunity to be the feature back at the University of Tennessee.
Now we'll see what he can do with it.