(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Tennessee running back Tauren Poole (28) runs for a 35-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss on Nov. 13 in Knoxville.
KNOXVILLE — Tauren Poole knows exactly what David Oku has been dealing with.
Poole, Tennessee’s junior starting tailback, thought he should have been on the field more as a sophomore.
Oku, now a sophomore, has been struggling with the same situation. He fully expected to be at least the Volunteers’ backup tailback all season, but he was dropped to No. 3 before the Oct. 9 game at Georgia and has just 174 yards on 24 carries heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Kentucky.
“It’s hard, man. It’s really hard,” Poole said last month. “You feel like there’s nothing you can do. It’s kind of helpless. I’ve been there. It’s not fun.”
Oku opened the season as Poole’s primary backup, and he scored UT’s first touchdown of the season on a 44-yard run in the first quarter of a 50-0 blowout over UT-Martin.
After that, though, Oku slumped in a big way. He had 8 yards on seven carries against Oregon, 24 yards on five carries against Florida, 33 yards on eight carries against UAB and just 1 yard on three carries at LSU.
He didn’t get a single carry against Georgia, Alabama or South Carolina, and he had just 13 yards on nine combined carries in mop-up duty in blowouts over Memphis and Ole Miss.
And, most surprisingly, Oku lost his spot as the Vols’ primary kickoff return specialist just one season after setting UT records as a true freshman. First-year coach Derek Dooley complained about Oku running with “no conviction” on offense or in the return game, and he eventually dropped him down the depth chart in both areas.
Oku regained the No. 2 spot over true freshman Rajion Neal for last week’s game at Vanderbilt, though, and he had 50 yards on seven touches — mostly thanks to a 34-yard rail route reception in the first half.
“He was excited,” Poole said. “He got a couple of good creases, and he ran hard. That was kind of the knock on him all season — not running hard — but he went out there and ran hard.
“You just have to stay positive and keep working hard every day to get on the field. It’s not easy, but that’s what you’ve got to do. And I’m proud of [Oku] for doing that.
“He’s excited to be back out there, and I’m excited, too. He’s a great player and a great guy.”
Dooley didn’t praise Oku’s performance against the Commodores but said he’s again, at least for now, re-established himself as UT’s second tailback.
The coach credited Oku for running with more conviction, though.
“I did sense that, and that’s good,” Dooley said. “It tells me that he’s trying, and that’s important. I think Tauren sometimes doesn’t do it — ‘Let’s get your pads down and go.’ I noticed that with David the other night, and he caught a little rail route. So he let Rajion know he isn’t the only one who can catch a rail route, which is good.
“He’s our 2 right now. He’s played better than any of the other guys trying to play 2, but I don’t think anybody’s been as productive a 2 as we need them to be.”
Sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner, a converted safety who is tied for the team lead with four interceptions — including three returned for touchdowns — has started every game this season despite practicing much of the time in a no-contact jersey.
The Vols aren’t deep in the secondary, so Waggner has had to test his toughness continually.
“At the beginning of the season I thought I was ready for it, but it’s been a grind,” Waggner said. “There’s been some nights where my body’s worn down, and I had to do a couple of pushups or something like that to get my muscles going. It’s been a grind.”
Waggner, who’s tied for third in the FBS with three fumble recoveries this season, described his various ailments.
“It’s basically been everything — my neck, my back, everything,” he said. “My mama tells me all the time that I’m getting to become an old man. Pretty much every day I have to get in the cold tub, but I hate the cold.”
Dooley said true freshman starting guard Zach Fulton, who returned from an ankle injury to play about 20 snaps at Vanderbilt, is improving but still isn’t 100 percent.
“He’s still hurting,” Dooley said. “We needed him to be 100 percent [last week], but he wasn’t. He’s just still improving. It just takes time, but we are working him, and he’s getting work out there.
“But he’ll be all right [this week]. He’ll be fine.”
Dooley has been consistently pleased with Fulton, who showed up on campus looking physically like a college upperclassman at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds.
“He’s got really good stature,” Dooley said. “He’s a big guy who can bend, and he’s got a lot of lower-body power, so he’s got a lot of great physical attributes. He’s a little bit more physically developed than a lot of the younger freshmen linemen.”
Good ... for now
Dooley, who wasn’t pleased with his team’s practice preparation for Vanderbilt, said the start to Kentucky week has been better.
“We had good energy today,” he said. “The team came ready to go and [had a] good day’s work, competing hard. ... But, well, it’s still early in the week. Those sick feelings can come at any minute prior to kickoff and during kickoff and even after kickoff, so you’re never out of the blue from the sick feelings.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.