Senior leading rusher Poole expected to excel this season, Neal to carry out back-up role
Consistency throughout a career has been hard to come by for Tennessee running backs.
Be it injuries, sophomore slumps, off-the-field incidents or a number of any other factors, not many Volunteer backs have been able to consistently produce over their careers on Rocky Top.
There has only been one running back in UT history has been able to rush for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, and it isn't Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Cedric Houston or Arian Foster.
Johnnie Jones rushed for 1,116 yards in his junior season in 1983 and capped off his career in Knoxville with 1,290 yards the following season.
Tauren Poole has a chance to try to be just the second Volunteer to achieve the feat, after eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in the Music City Bowl in his first season as a starter.
For Poole, this spring is only about one thing.
"Definitely just getting better," the senior back said. "Being the best I can be every day. Every day is my last day at UT, and I can't take it for granted. I have to go out and attack it every day and show the coaches why I'm the running back."
The biggest differences for Poole in his second year as a starter are expectations and leadership. He believes he has plenty of room for improvement.
"Expectations are higher," Poole said. "I'm a senior. (Also) leadership, I've got to be a more vocal leader. In my actions, my words, everything I do, I have to get better. I love it, man, I love the pressure of getting better. That's what I'm out here for, to get better. And I love that the coaches hold us to a better standard than we hold ourselves."
After the departure of David Oku this offseason, sophomore Rajion Neal has emerged as the clear No. 2 back, and he's making the most of his spring, running rampant on the primarily No. 2 defense in the team's first scrimmage, racking up 152 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries.
Neal has taken a proactive approach after being called out at the beginning of spring for not being physical enough. Now he's started to change some minds with only one week of spring practice left.
"He's been doing better," the always even-keel Derek Dooley said about Neal's running style. "He's still got a long way to go. That's just not his natural way to run the football, but he's showing improvement."
"He was real physical today," Poole said. "That's been the knock on him all spring. Coach Dooley has been on him to be more physical, and today he brought it. I'm sure he made coach Dooley proud. He made the running-back room proud. I'm happy for him."
The unsung hero of the "running-back room" has been sophomore fullback Channing Fugate, who has continued to look and play like a veteran all spring. Dooley praised his ability to run the ball and will look to get him more touches as spring practice wraps up.
Sophomore Toney Williams provides the last bit of depth but is still looking to return to the form he had before suffering a serious knee injury during spring practice in 2009.
Highly touted recruits Marlin Lane and Tom Smith will arrive in the summer to join the rest of the backs to compete for reps. Local product Devrin Young was a running back at Knoxville's Bearden high school and could see time in the backfield, as well as in the slot, though Young is expected to contribute immediately in the return game.
"(Competing is what) we come out and do every day," Poole said. "I remember when we first met, I told all the running backs that I was going to compete with them every day, and they would have to match my intensity. We continue to compete every day."
Behind an offensive line that was predominantly freshmen a year ago, the run game was not always the most consistent product Tennessee put on the field.
This year, the Vols return a more experienced unit up front, and that may give Poole the edge to become the second tailback in Tennessee history to rush for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
And that would be a portrait of consistency.