KNOXVILLE - Tailback Bryce Brown approached first-year Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley this morning with "concerns," didn't practice with the team in the afternoon and might leave the program, the coach said.
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.
Dooley refused to shut the door but didn't sound overly optimistic about the player's desire to 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 today's conversation. He'd said 24 hours earlier that he'd only seen newspaper accounts of the player's concerns.
"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 (guys already on the team). I'm here to coach."
The Vols don'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 and showed signs of promise, 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."
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.
Read Friday's Times Free Press for more UT coverage.
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