KNOXVILLE — For the first installment of “Wednesdays with Wes,” I thought it would be nice to give our loyal TFP readers a two-for-one.
I spoke with UT’s top two tailbacks, Tauren Poole and David Oku, about their disappointment with last week’s loss at ninth-ranked Florida and this Saturday’s 12:21 p.m. home game against UAB.
Poole and Oku are two of my favorite guys to interview on this year’s team. Both are smart, polite, honest and gracious with their time. They’re very good representatives of the UT program, in my opinion.
But neither player had a particularly memorable day against the archrival Gators.
Poole, a junior, entered the Florida game as the SEC’s leading rusher but finished with just 23 yards on 10 carries. He had 38 yards on three catches, but his 31-yard reception in the fourth quarter ended in a lost fumble that ended UT’s comeback hopes. He also suffered a thigh bruise earlier in the fourth quarter.
Oku, a sophomore, had 24 yards on five carries and a 6-yard reception against the Gators. He also continued his surprising, early-season struggles in the kickoff return game. As a freshman, he set a single-season program record for kick return yards, but his return average has dipped from 26.2 to 19.7.
Here are transcripts from interviews with Poole and Oku. We’ll start with the starter.
Q: You’re not practicing in an orange and white jersey this week. You’re wearing a red, no-contact jersey. That’s not usually a good thing. How are you feeling?
POOLE: “I’m doing good. I’m doing good. It’s just precautionary. I’ve got a little thigh bruise, but we’re getting there. That’s what happens in this game of football. When you play hard and you play tough, you’re going to get a little nicked up. You’ve just got to learn to play through it.”
Q: When did you bruise the thigh?
POOLE: “The fourth quarter of the Florida game, toward the end of a drive. I got a little injured right there. But I’ll be fine.”
Q: Was that one of those injuries you didn’t really feel until after the game? I spoke with you right after the game, and you weren’t limping too badly.
POOLE: “Yeah, it was. I didn’t feel it until after the game. It was kind of sore, but it’s just a bruise. I’m glad it’s just a bruise. I’m fine.”
Q: You didn’t have much room to run against Florida. How are things going with the team’s new-look, extremely young offensive line? You’ve already lost two starters in center Cody Pope and left guard JerQuari Schofield.
POOLE: “I think they’re doing a great job of coming in and answering the call when their opportunity is coming. I know it’s tough. I know it’s tough, being a freshman coming straight from high school, and everything is thrown at you out on this football field. But once they get all the mental aspects down, they’ll be fine. They’ve got all the physical tools, but once they get the mental aspects down, they’ll be fine.”
Q: I’m sure you’re going to sit here and tell me you guys take every game one at a time, and we all know UAB is capable of winning on Saturday, but how important is it for you guys to beat them before heading into a tough October schedule?
POOLE: “I don’t think we can afford not to play well against UAB or anybody. This week, specifically, it’s UAB. We can’t afford that as a team. We fought against Florida, so we’ve just got to bring that same intensity. It’s all about winning. Nothing’s about just effort. We want to win around here. It’s fun when you win. I think we’ve just got to continue to bring it on the practice field, and it will transition to the game field.”
Q: You guys have played top 10 opponents the past two weeks, and you travel to No. 15 LSU next week. I’m sure you and the other veterans won’t look past UAB, but a lot of young guys play pivotal roles on this team. Do you think everyone is on the same page and focused solely on UAB?
POOLE: “I believe so. And I believe it’s going to take more of a leadership role from a lot of the older guys in order to get our focus specifically on UAB and keep it on UAB, because that’s the only game this week, and that’s the only game we can focus on. That’s the big thing, just continuing to focus on the opponent that you have and work toward winning.”
Q: I know you, and I know that winning games is more important to you than personal statistics. But with that said, this team needs your statistics, and you know the Florida game wasn’t your best. I know you’d be OK with getting 0 yards and the team winning, but I’m sure you’d like to bounce back with a big game against the Blazers ... right?
POOLE: “Yeah. (Florida) was tough, and it was a grind throughout the whole game. I didn’t know my numbers until (Tuesday) or (Monday), but yeah, it was tough. I kind of pride myself on being productive, and I wasn’t very productive in that game. But I’m going to pick it up for this team, for this University and get back to where I need to be.
Q: So that means you’ll definitely play Saturday?
POOLE: “Yes, sir.”
Q: You’ll play even if you’re not 100 percent?
POOLE: “Yes, sir. I will.”
Q: Obviously you’re not 100 percent, because you’re in a no-contact jersey, but how close are you?
POOLE: “I’ll be fine. I’m about 90 percent.”
Q: Why do those numbers always have to be rounded off? Why can’t someone be 89 or 91 percent healthy? Are you absolutely sure you’re exactly 90 percent?
POOLE: “I’m about 91 percent.”
Q: That’s better. Thank you for your honesty.
POOLE: “No problem. Happy to help.”
Q: Tauren might not be 100 percent Saturday. As the No. 2 tailback, does that change your mindset at all this week?
OKU: “No, it doesn’t. You never know. He could come out at 85 (percent) and still look good. Some players can do it, and some players can’t. It’s just one of those things that you’ve just got to be ready to go whenever your number is called, basically.”
Q: You guys are a very young offense, and leadership is often tough to find in young groups. Is there a guy that stands out to you as the leader?
OKU: “Well ... I mean, we do (have leaders). We have them at certain times, certain occasions. But I think we just need to have one that just really stands out. I’m not a vocal guy. Being a leader and stuff like that, that’s just not my nature; never has been. I just feel like as soon as you know you’re a leader, one time you have a bad practice, it just makes you look bad when you’re the one doing all the talking. That’s not like throwing anybody under the bus or nothing. I just don’t think nobody has just like accepted that role yet. I feel like Tauren has but, you know, it’s just one of those things where he’s still a little quiet about it. You know how he is.
“Somebody’s going to break out from that shell and just take over with it.”
Q: Do you think that lack of vocal leadership is hindering your offense in any way, maybe even in some small way?
OKU: “No. Not necessarily. You could say it could (hurt). You could say it can’t (hurt). But you sometimes ... sometimes you just roll with it. There’s been lot of good teams that didn’t have a leader. Everybody was just left to deal with things that were going on, and it’s fine.”
Q: You and I have spoken several times about how brutally honest Coach Dooley is with you guys when you don’t meet his expectations. By now, you’ve surely heard that Coach Dooley said that you’ve brought — and this is a direct quote — “nothing other than an inability to make yards” to the kick return position. He also said you haven’t been running with conviction. How do you respond to that?
OKU: “We have conversations. He pulls me aside. That’s just the thing with Coach Dooley, and that’s why I respect him more as a coach, but also as a father-like figure. He’ll just sit down and be honest with you. If he doesn’t like what’s going on, then he’ll just tell you. Some coaches like to beat around the bush with things and try to make it all great when it’s not. That’s just Coach Dooley.
“We’ve got to work on it. Coach Dooley has talked to me about it, and that’s just something I’ve got to (correct) from my end, as an individual and things like that. Looking at the film this week, I did do a lot of tippy-toeing and things like that, and not just hitting the hole. We’ve got to work on that this week.”
Q: Have you been “tippy-toeing” because you want to make a big play, and you’re trying to find a hole for a big play? Several guys in the past have done that. It seems like the natural instinct in that situation, honestly.
OKU: “I wouldn’t say that’s a part of it. I think it’s just a fact of just ... I don’t know. It’s just like Coach Dooley says, ‘If you don’t believe in yourself, then you’re never going to get anywhere.’ I think that’s just the case. He’s right. It’s just not believing in yourself, just me not believing in myself, that I can do it, because some of the struggles we’ve had with it. I know we worked a lot on in the whole offseason, and the whole fall camp, and we were looking good. But at the same time, we’ve had our moments where we’ve been disappointed and things like that.
“I guess that’s just the nature of it — just being disappointed sometimes, and just not living up to it. I don’t think it’s pressure. It’s just something we’ve got to work on. And it’s more working on it from my part. I don’t blame anybody else. I take full blame for it.”
Q: Coaches say all the time — off the record, of course — that they don’t waste much time on guys who can’t be good. An optimist would say Coach Dooley has been so hard on you because he knows what kind of player you could be one day. Do you see it that way?
OKU: “Coach Dooley sees things I don’t see. I’m not saying I doubt myself or nothing like that. But at the same time, it’s just that I know Coach Dooley, and I feel like if the coaches see something, it’s something that I can evolve into as a player. So it’s just about just coming out and finding it. It’s not a lack of confidence or nothing like that. It just has to come out. You’re working on it to come out. It’s going to hit. I’m not going to say it’s not (bad) now, because it is.
“Coach Dooley said I had a good fall camp and a good first game. He just said I’ve got to pick it back up.”
Q: I know you guys take everything one game at a time, and you guys play UAB on Saturday. But that October schedule looks...
OKU: “Brutal. It’s brutal, man. Brutal.”
Q: Fair enough. I might have said that word, anyway. So now that we’ve established how “brutal” the October schedule is, does that make it even more important to play well Saturday to take confidence into October?
OKU: “Oh my goodness gracious, yes it does. You can’t go into conference play like that. I know we struggled last week against Florida, but that’s over with. Now we’ve got to take UAB this week. We can’t look down the road, but it really would help, getting a win this week.”
Q: Coach Dooley said UAB doesn’t have to play its best to beat you guys. Essentially, he said a Conference USA program could have merely a decent day and beat Tennessee in Neyland Stadium. What are your thoughts on Dooley’s comments? He sure made Saturday sound serious.
OKU: “Yeah, it serious. I’m like Coach Dooley, and that’s why I respect him. Coach Dooley is honest with you about everything. He has no reason to lie to you. That’s just the thing. You look at Ole Miss (losing to Jacksonville State) and James Madison (beating Virginia Tech). Those were Division I-AA schools, and UAB is Conference USA ... I mean, it happens. And by, ‘It happens,’ I don’t just mean it’s luck. It’s not just luck. It happens. If a team doesn’t play, and they come out there lolly-gagging, they’re going to beat.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739.
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