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Poole perseveres, pushes on

HOOVER, Ala. — After dutifully giving four full hours of interviews, a 1,000-yard SEC rusher was ready to leave a Wynfrey Hotel full of nearly 1,000 reporters.

Tauren Poole races past an Ole Miss defender for a touchdown in UT's 52-14 win last season in Neyland Stadium.

He thought the coast was clear.

He was wrong.

One reporter found him at the Dr Pepper fountain and swooped in for a final segment.

“I ain’t done with you yet,” the reporter said before the 5-foot-10, 215-pound senior spotted him.

Poole turned, saw the familiar face and laughed.

Tauren Poole always has time for a question, even from someone requesting a fourth interview in the same day.

“Bring it,” he said.

The reporter — full disclosure, it was me — asked Tennessee’s senior tailback for a response to his head coach’s rather interesting remark from the previous hour.

“I told Tauren on the way down that Coach Spurrier said he had the best back in the league,” Derek Dooley had said. “I told him I agreed with him.”

Dooley, Poole and two of the tailback’s teammates had been “on the way down” to their present location — suburban Birmingham, home of the annually-absurd SEC Media Days.

Coach Spurrier is South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, and his back is sophomore star Marcus Lattimore.

Ouch.

Poole kept smiling and said he wasn’t surprised.

“Story of my life, man,” he said. “My own coach.”

No matter how hard he’s tried, no matter how many successes he’s had, no matter how many problems he’s pushed off the path, Tauren Poole has always been a bridesmaid.

Always.

Poole was given several honors after rushing for 5,413 yards and 79 touchdowns in his final three seasons at Stephens County High School in Toccoa, Ga. Several outlets named him area player of the year, and he had a nice list of college offers — including but not limited to UT, Auburn, Georgia Tech and South Carolina — but he was barely considered one of the nation’s 20 best tailback prospects. And that class’s top-50 list of tailback prospects hasn’t produced many household names to this point.

Frustrations weren’t finished at that point, though.

They’d just started, actually.

Despite consistently performing well in practice and gaining plenty of respect from his teammates, Poole’s first two seasons at Tennessee — under former coaches Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin — ended with a combined 171 yards and no touchdowns on 32 carries. The man he came to play for (Fulmer) was gone after the 2008 season, and Poole’s bags were all-but packed for a transfer after the Kiffin-led 2009 season.

“I thought I was done at Tennessee,” Poole said. “I really did.”

Kiffin left town, though, so Poole stayed.

It now seems safe to suggest that last-minute role reversal worked out well for the Vols.

Poole practically won the starting position by default last season. Highly touted freshman Bryce Brown left the program after Kiffin’s departure, versatile youngster David Oku struggled with Dooley’s staff before leaving the team, and Poole performed well — especially given the circumstances surrounding the Vols.

UT’s offensive line, across the board, had virtually no meaningful experience, and the quarterbacks had even less. The offense was bad until late-season starting quarterback Tyler Bray pumped life into it, and the Vols moved the ball and scored plenty down the stretch — albeit against a collection of mediocre-or-worse defenses.

So overall, no, UT’s offense wasn’t very good in 2010.

So Poole’s 1,205 yards and 12 touchdowns on 226 touches in 2010 weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.

So when media rattle off name after name while praising a potentially banner year for SEC backs, surely Poole’s name is tossed in the mix, right? Even few Tennessee fans would argue that Poole is better than Lattimore, Arkansas’ Knile Davis and Alabama’s Trent Richardson, but surely he’s the near the top of that second-tier, right?

Wrong.

Tauren Poole is again an afterthought.

Ole Miss’s Brandon Bolden, Auburn’s Michael Dyer and Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard seemed to be bigger topics of discussion this week down here in suburban Birmingham. Others, like incoming, five-star Georgia freshman Isaiah Crowell and healthy-again Vanderbilt junior Warren Norman, have seemed to draw more interest.

Tauren Poole is again an also-ran.

Some UT fans have convinced themselves Poole isn’t even his team’s best back. Some have salivated over speedy sophomore Rajion Neal’s 4.36-second, 40-yard dash before spring practice. Some of the silliest — you know, the ones who always think every incoming freshman should start? — think signees Marlin Lane or Tom Smith will ultimately battle Neal for the top spot. This season.

Tauren Poole, forever a bridesmaid.

“I just kind of expect it now,” Poole said. “It’s been like that my entire life. I wasn’t mentioned really when I was coming out of high school. I had all these guys above me, and that’s fine. That’s just how it is. I’ve experienced it. I know the ropes. It’s OK.

“But I’m going to prove what I can do on the field. That’s all I can do, but I know I can do it.”

Poole’s coaches seem to believe it, too. At least in some ways.

Dooley admittedly loves marketing Poole the person — perhaps you’ve noticed the face on UT’s media guide, local interstate billboards and poster and pocket schedules — and most coaches would do the same for a 1,000-yard rusher who has been on the past three Academic All-SEC teams.

Raised by a single mother who worked two jobs while his father spent a decade in prison, Poole made Georgia’s All-State Academic team in high school despite acting as de facto dad to his younger sister, cooking her dinner and helping her with homework after getting home from practice. Many initially marveled at the social sacrifices the teenager made for his family, but ultimately the Stephens County community came to expected nothing less from their promising football prospect.

“For him to do what he does in today’s society, for his sister, in my opinion, shows how unselfish a person he is,” Poole’s high school coach, Travis Noland, told the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail in January 2008. “He’s missed out on a lot of things personally that maybe could have been more fun, or more in Tauren’s favor for Tauren, that he’s given up for her benefit.”

Things don’t seem much different now on that end, either.

Poole’s Twitter page isn’t unlike former Vols tailback and NFL leading rusher Arian Foster’s in that football is often featured much less prominently than philosophical observations and spiritual messages. Both young men prefer to be known as people who play football rather than just football players.

“Tauren is everything that you want in a player from his drive to be his best,” Dooley said. “I wish we had 100 Tauren Poole’s (with) his commitment to the program, how he represents Tennessee.”

But Dooley wants that potential turned into better production.

While it’s generally a joy to coach good-natured kids, no one is perfect on the field. While Dooley noted Poole’s “good size and speed for his position,” he also pointed to plenty of areas where his top back needs to perform better.

“He was inconsistent last year,” Dooley said. “He was productive as a whole. He had some games where he was remarkable. He had other games where it was hard on him.”

But “a lot of things go into that,” the coach continued.

“Number one, it was his first year of (starting),” Dooley said. “He wants to do well so bad, he wants to perform so well, it took him a while to get settled into the position. We’ve got to do a better job of blocking for him, and we will. And we also need to help him a little bit with another back. I think it’s hard. There’s only a few guys a year who can go out there and carry that load 12 games and take that kind of pounding, so I’ve always kind of believed in a two-back system where you’ve got another back who can get in there where you can manage your player so he can be productive consistently throughout the season.”

The bottom line is clear, though.

“We’re not going to be a good football team if Tauren is not productive for us,” Dooley said. “We’re not going to be a good offense. We need him to be consistent and productive, and I know he’s committed to doing that.”

Commitment has never been Poole’s problem. He said he’s “100 percent” committed to having a strong senior season, but finally breaking through the pack to soak in the spotlight isn’t his motivation — not his sole or primary motivation, anyway.

“I’m not on all those (preseason) lists or whatever, and that’s OK,” Poole said. “Like I said, that’s always been the way it is for me. It’s always been like that my whole life, but that’s fine. I’m just an underrated guy, I guess. That’s OK. People can think whatever they want to think. I just have to prove those people wrong.

“Everyone else can say or think whatever they want. In their opinion, I’m not a great back, I guess. But I feel like I’m a great back, and I feel like I’m going to play like a great back.

“Those rankings don’t matter, anyway. I don’t get into that stuff. I just want to play football. That’s all I’m worried about right now, just going out there and playing ball and getting Tennessee back on top.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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