By Robert Holder
KNOXVILLE — The bond between Tennessee running backs Tauren Poole and David Oku is one formed through competition.
Every day on the practice field, the two battle the scout squad. More importantly, they battle each other. They placed that challenge on themselves to prove they belong on the field despite being passed over last season.
Poole won the starting job after a strong spring practice and preseason camp, and he doesn’t plan to surrender it. And that was his precise message to Oku during practice leading up to last week’s season opener against UT-Martin.
“He told me he wasn’t going to be too happy to come out and that he would tell me to keep on the sideline the whole time,” Oku said.
Oku, as he usually does, responded with a laugh.
“I told him if that is the case, then just put me in the fourth quarter with the last two minutes,” Oku said.
Oku didn’t have to wait that long to play. And he didn’t wait long to score, either. The 5-foot-10 sophomore took his second rush 44 yards around the right end for the Volunteers’ first score of the season.
“David kind of set the tone on [that] run,” Poole said. “I knew he was always capable of doing stuff like that. He came to the sideline and said, ‘OK, let’s go, T, let’s go,’ and I was like, ‘I got you.’”
Poole, a 5-11 junior, responded with two scores and led the team with 110 yards on 17 carries. Oku had six rushes for 77 yards in the 50-0 victory.
Neither had a chance to compile similar numbers last season behind Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown.
Poole, who is from Toccoa, Ga., set career records with 5,519 yards and 79 touchdowns at Stephens County High School. But he amassed a meager 171 yards on the ground his first two seasons with the Vols.
Oku returned kickoffs last season, and he did that well, setting single-season records with 33 attempts and 863 yards. But last week easily surpassed his career high for rushing yards.
Pushing each other has been a big part of the improvement process.
“We continue to do that in practice,” Poole said. “In anything we do, we challenge each other. There is no kind of conflict going on or anything like that. We continue to compete, and we are going to continue to compete at the highest level, whatever we do.”
Poole said the duo plan to become interchangeable parts.
“Me and David are kind of the same tailback,” he said. “That’s why you see nothing change when either one of us comes out. It’s the same thing. We have to continue to grow at the tailback position. Neither one of us are where we want to be, and we both know that.
“We have to mature in this league and get better.”
Saturday’s opponent, seventh-ranked Oregon, also has a pair of prolific backs in LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. With James suspended for the Ducks’ season-opening 72-0 win over New Mexico, Barner had 147 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries, and he added a 60-yard touchdown catch.
James is still the Ducks’ starter, though, after rushing for more than 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as a freshman.
UT senior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said both Oregon backs are “Heisman-capable.”
“We definitely have to gang tackle, because they are very strong and very, very good runners,” Thompson added.
Vols coach Derek Dooley said Oregon and Alabama (with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson) have “the two best running back combinations that you’ll see in the country.”
“They had their best runner out, and you see how bad that hurt them last week,” Dooley said. “Nobody ever stops them. You’ve just got to slow them down and try to be sound fundamentally and try to get some breaks here and there.”
Poole and Oku, meanwhile, will try to match the Ducks’ duo yard for yard Saturday.
“I know that he’s a dominant tailback,” Poole said of Barner. “I know I’m going to have to bring my best game because he’s going to bring his best game. We’ve got a lot to offer to this offense, and I know the coaches feel that way. We just have to show it.
“We have to continue to go forward, not backward, and continue to attack this week.”
Staff writer Wes Rucker contributed to this story.