KNOXVILLE — With about three minutes left on the clock in last season’s rout of Memphis, then-Tennessee running backs coach Eddie Gran approached then-sophomore Tauren Poole and told him he was about to enter the game.
Poole had other plans.
“I was like, ‘Naw,’” Poole said. “I was really respectful, but I said, ‘No, sir, I don’t want to go in.’”
Gran walked back toward the other coaches and relayed the information to then-head coach Lane Kiffin, who then approached Poole for confirmation.
“Coach Kiffin was like, ‘You don’t want to go in?’” Poole said. “I was like, ‘No. I should have been playing all year. I don’t want to go in there with three minutes left in the Memphis game.’”
Kiffin blew up and sent Poole to the showers before time expired.
Poole calmly walked through the north end-zone tunnel, into the palatial Peyton Manning Locker Room Complex, changed clothes and left Neyland Stadium, in his mind, for the last time.
“I felt like I was done at Tennessee,” he said.
Gran called Poole that night and convinced the fourth-team tailback to come back to practice and “stay the course,” because the “situation was what it was, but everything can change in a hurry.”
“I came back, but nothing changed,” Poole said. “They kept feeding me a bunch of bull.”
Stories that start like that are fairly common. But they don’t usually end like Poole’s.
First off, his teammates didn’t protest Poole’s actions. Most of them said they weren’t upset, many of them said they understood and some even said they’d have done the same thing.
“Tauren deserved a shot last year,” sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. “That’s why we stood behind him.”
Senior wide receiver Gerald Jones, as he’s prone to do, went even further.
“I think anybody would have got up and left,” Jones said. “Tauren took as much as he could take.”
Senior kicker Daniel Lincoln said “everybody was in Tauren’s court.”
“I was, 100 percent, and so was just about everybody else,” Lincoln continued. “People on the sideline literally yelled at coaches, ‘Yo, put him in,’ during games last year. And it still didn’t happen. Players ... you can’t fool the players. It doesn’t matter what coaches say in the media, you cannot fool the players. The players know what’s going on. They know who’s good and they know who’s not good, and they know who’s paid the price and who hasn’t.
“We’ve been supporting Tauren the whole time. We’ve known how good he is since day one. What you’re seeing now is what we’ve seen the whole time.”
After getting just 10 carries last season — behind Montario Hardesty’s 282, Bryce Brown’s 101 and David Oku’s 23 — Poole is on track to rush for 1,000 yards this season. His six 100-yard games this season have been matched in the Southeastern Conference only by Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the presumed Heisman Trophy favorite. No tailback has matched it.
Poole is just seventh in the league in rushing, but his 5.5 yards per carry are better than second-place Marcus Lattimore and third-place Stevan Ridley and barely behind 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. And Poole has done that behind the league’s youngest offensive line, which entered the season with three combined career starts and sometimes plays four freshmen at the same time.
“He’s quietly gained a lot of yards,” said Kiffin’s replacement as head coach, Derek Dooley. “I don’t know how best to say it. I was thinking about that because I think the consistency of our run game has not been what we want it to be. And that’s not all on Tauren. But then you look at his numbers, and they’re pretty good. They’re solid. They’re not phenomenal but they’re good.
“He’s done what we’ve asked him to do.”
That seems to be Poole’s philosophy: Respect me, and I’ll respect you. After an official told Poole he celebrated too much after scoring the final touchdown in UT’s 52-14 win over Ole Miss on Saturday, he started his postgame interview by apologizing to the Rebels and their fans.
“He’s a great young man. He really is,” Dooley said. “He’s got tremendous character. His work ethic is as good as anybody on the team. And I think all the players respect the investment that he’s put into the team. Generally that’s how you earn respect — by your investment, your personal investment to the program.
“There’s not many guys that’s put more in it than him.”
Poole was surprised that so many teammates openly stood behind him last season, which could have jeopardized their own standing with the coaches. But he wasn’t surprised that they agreed with him.
“My teammates knew where I was coming from,” he said. “They told me all year, basically every day, that I should be playing more. So many guys told me they understood why I was mad. They kind of respected me for doing what I did, even if it wasn’t the best decision to make.
“They said they respected that I wouldn’t stand for them doing me wrong any more.”
Poole hasn’t proven his teammates wrong this season.
Oku, who played much more than Poole last season, is now third on the depth chart behind Poole and true freshman Rajion Neal. Brown transferred to Kansas State after averaging 4.6 yards per carry last season behind an offensive line with four seniors — two that were drafted — and a freshman All-American who since has left the program.
“We work out together. We run against each other. We compete every day,” Jones said. “You can’t fool us. We’re out here every day, and we see it. We see who can play the best.
“If I was a coach, I would have had [Poole] out there last year. But that’s not my decision, so I stayed out of it.”
Poole doesn’t enjoy discussing last season, and he only discusses if after a gentle prodding and a reminder that things have improved quite considerably.
But, to be sure, he doesn’t regret any of it.
“That [Memphis game] was kind of the climax of how I was feeling, that I should have been playing all season,” he said. “That was kind of the turning point. I was fed up about not playing, because I knew what type of player I was, ... and I still do.
“I still know what type of player I am. I’m just thankful I’ve finally been blessed with the opportunity to show it.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.