KNOXVILLE -- The focus of coach Derek Dooley's first official practice with the Tennessee football team quickly strayed away from who was on the field.
Running back Bryce Brown approached Dooley on Thursday morning with "concerns," didn't practice with the Volunteers in the afternoon and might leave the program, the coach said after the team's practice at Haslam Field.
Brown, who came to UT last season as the nation's No. 1 overall prospect, quickly established himself as the Vols' No. 2 tailback and finished with 460 rushing yards, 137 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
A source close to Brown told the Times Free Press that he had not made a "final" decision, but the prevailing thought inside the program is that he won't be back.
Brown's brother, Arthur, transferred from Miami to Kansas State last month, stating a desire to be closer to the family's Wichita home.
Dooley refused to shut the door but didn't sound overly optimistic that Brown would return.
"Bryce Brown came to me today and indicated he's dealing with a lot of personal and family problems right now," Dooley said. "They're concerns that I believe stem from -- and what he told me stem from -- some of the reasons why he came here, and his experience over the first six months that he was here.
"As of right now, he's not a part of the team. That doesn't mean we've kicked him off, by any means. We want Bryce here, and he's going to be here (at least) through the rest of the semester. But my focus really is on the 85 guys who are here and have great spirit about the direction of the program and are excited about their first practice."
Dooley admitted he was "a little surprised" with Thursday's conversation. The coach said Wednesday that he'd only seen media accounts of Brown's concerns, but he hadn't noticed any serious displeasure in "several" talks with the player the past few weeks.
"I was a little surprised, but you can only control what you can control," Dooley said. "He went through the entire offseason, but I also think this wasn't just something from the last three weeks. This is something that was probably six months, but I'm not here to recruit (players already on the team). I'm here to coach."
UT doesn't have tremendous depth in many places, but tailback is one of the team's deeper positions. Tauren Poole and David Oku contributed to varying degrees last season, while Chattanooga native Toney Williams returned this spring following rehabilitation of a torn ACL.
Four-star freshman prospect Rajion Neal will join the team this summer and should help bolster the depth chart.
"Any time a player leaves the program, it presents an opportunity for somebody else," Dooley said. "(Brown) was somebody who was going to compete for a starting job, but I'm not sure how much different it is for the other two backs (Oku and Poole), because they were coming in expecting to be the starting back anyway.
"We have some depth issues, so you're always concerned about injuries, but you've still got to practice and be a good runner. I think it's not unlike many of the other positions now. It will present an opportunity for our signee to get in the mix. We've got to get him going a little quicker if Bryce isn't here."
Oku said he was surprised and disappointed by Brown's decision, but he added excitement about the possible expansion of his role as an every-down back. The shifty Oku was primarily a kickoff return specialist and change-of-pace back last season as a freshman.
"I think it caught a lot of people. I think it really did," Oku said. "It's just one of those things. You never think something will happen, and then it does.
"Everybody makes their own decisions. All we can do is hope he (stays), but we can't control what somebody else does. You know, like Coach Dooley said, 'Everybody's got to worry about taking care of themselves to get the team chemistry going.'"
Oku admitted replacing Brown is "not going to be an easy thing.
"It's easier said than done," he added. "It's going to be rough."
The Vols return to practice Saturday at 10 a.m.
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