published Friday, November 18th, 2011

14 Vols seniors set for last home game

UT THURSDAY PRACTICE REPORT


The Vols again limited quarterback Tyler Bray's early-practice throws Thursday morning to preserve the wear on his arm, but the sophomore, who continued to wear a glove on his right hand to help his grip with his broken thumb, threw the ball sharper than he has all week. All signs point to him starting Saturday, though he officially remains questionable. Defensive back Prentiss Waggner and linebackers Herman Lathers and Raiques Crump wore noncontact jerseys as UT worked indoors. Tailback Marlin Lane was out of his green jersey, and right guard Zach Fulton was back practicing with the first team after he was limited on Wednesday. Receiver Da'Rick Rogers ditched the brace on his left knee for the first time this week and appeared 100 percent.

KNOXVILLE -- The thoughts have been running rampant in Tauren Poole's mind all week.

As the Tennessee tailback reflected on his career that is nearing an end, Poole remained his usual honest self with a somber tone as he tried to define a legacy for himself and 13 other seniors who will play their final game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night against Vanderbilt.

"I don't know if there is much of a legacy, man, and I'm not saying that to be disrespectful or anything," Poole said. "I don't know if people are going to remember this class for what we did because we didn't do much, to be honest with you. We can finish these two games on a good note.

"We have to continue to come to the practice field and keep guys positive, because there is negative energy around everywhere, but we have to stay positive."

Staying positive has been tough for all the Volunteers, though the handful of seniors have had to endure through three coaching staffs. Poole and linebacker Austin Johnson are the lone players from the 2008 signing class who have made it through the program in four years. Seven others redshirted and could be seniors next season.

The other 11 players truly are indicative of the situation that Derek Dooley inherited when he took UT's coaching job in January of 2010. In addition to Poole and Johnson, only defensive lineman Malik Jackson, who transferred from Southern Cal last summer, and Ben Martin, who plays a limited snap count at defensive end, are regular starters this season.

Receiver Anthony Anderson and linebacker Daryl Vereen are regulars on special teams, Art Evans is a reserve cornerback, defensive back C.J. Fleming has played in six games in five years and Nick Guess is the long snapper. Quarterback Matt Simms is just 2-8 as a starter the last two seasons, and though he's played a brutal schedule, he's lost his job twice to true freshmen.

The rest of the senior class are current or former walk-ons: receiver Cory Eicholtz, kicker Chip Rhome and linebackers Shane Reveiz and Jake Storey.

"They've been through a lot," Dooley said. "They've been through three head coaches, they've been through probably four position coaches and five strength coaches and have stuck with it. I know this year hasn't gone the way they hoped, but it would be good to send them out of Neyland Stadium with a win.

"All these freshmen don't understand how they're going to feel when they're seniors. I didn't really realize how special it was until last year. It kind of caught me off guard when those guys were running through the 'T' for the last time."

Poole and Johnson have more losses (26) than wins (22) and must beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky and win the resulting bowl game to avoid a third losing season. Both said, however, that there's something in them sticking it out through the transition and finishing their careers.

"It means everything to us," said Johnson, a converted fullback and first-year starter who's the Vols' second-leading tackler and interceptions leader. "We didn't quit on them, we didn't leave the program, and I think just the camaraderie and the unity these guys have together was something that really attracted me.

"The tradition and how diehard football is here, that's what I wanted and that's what I loved about it. I never wanted to leave it for one second."

Poole was much closer to transferring -- "90 percent," he said -- in 2009 following his well-documented decision to refuse to enter in the fourth quarter of a blowout against Memphis.

"But I knew something was here and that I was going to leave something big here," he said. "It's not happening the way I thought it would, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. That's being truthful and honest. I'm glad I'm here.

"I think we have a ways to go. Some bad things have happened to UT. We have had a lot of bad luck. The good is going to roll around."

Dooley said this week he unexpectedly "got choked up" before last season's home finale, though he didn't know that class very well and admitted there were some "edgy" times during his short time with them. The emotion was so much, he said, that the Vols started slowly before beating Kentucky.

"It hit me, just seeing how emotional they got, it hit me just how much they loved their experience here, as bad as it was as far as the record and what happened," Dooley said. "That's when it really hits you -- how much college means to somebody and playing college football."

Last year's seniors, a class that included two NFL draft picks and a handful of other players who were productive and provided valuable leadership, finished their careers with a perfect November record and a bowl game. This year's group can do the same starting Saturday night.

"I wouldn't say it defines our whole legacy, but it definitely defines our season and my senior year," Johnson said. "This is it, and we don't want to be that class that doesn't make the bowl or gets beat by Vandy. We want to be successful this year and go to a bowl game."

Poole's mind certainly will be reflecting as he steps on the field Saturday night, but his focus must remain forward on ending a challenging career with some positive feelings.

"I'm not going to lie. It's tough," he said. "It really is, because you expect so much and you get so little. We'll continue to finish strong."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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Salsa said...

Good Luck.

November 18, 2011 at 12:01 p.m.
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