KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley referred to Tauren Poole simply as "the runner" at his weekly news conference Monday, but what Tennessee's football coach said next about his senior tailback was more important.
"He had probably his best game running that he's had since he's been here," Dooley said of Poole's 101-yard showing in the Volunteers' 45-23 home win Saturday against Cincinnati. "I think he really was less concerned about making the right cut and more concerned about running and getting your pads down and hitting it.
"There were about four or five times where a week ago he would have put the brakes on looking for a move, and he just put his pads down and got another 4 or 5 yards. That adds up over a course of the game."
Poole needed 24 carries to total 98 yards against Montana in the season opener, and UT's ground game took a step forward against Cincinnati after struggling against the FCS Grizzlies.
UT has averaged just 56 rushing yards during a six-game losing streak against Florida, which has averaged 158 yards on the ground in that stretch. But the Vols haven't had a passing attack in that stretch quite like they have now with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers running on all cylinders.
"If your throwing game is what it looked like last week, you don't need a lot of running game," Dooley said, "but if your quarterback's getting hit and you're getting confused back there, and the O-line's struggling to protect him, you've got to have a running game."
Dooley stressed the importance of a having a running game even with a high-powered passing attack because of all the situations that require it, including short-yardage downs, goal-line scenarios and clock-draining drives.
"It's really important for us to establish the run game, especially against this team because they're going to be the most talented team we've faced thus far," left guard Alex Bullard said. "They're going to know about Bray and Justin and Da'Rick, so they're going to try and shut those guys down. We're going to have to run the ball to have a balanced attack."
Florida's defensive line features fifth-year senior Jaye Howard and the sophomore trio of Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd -- three of the top seven players nationally from the 2010 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com.
But if "the runner" performs like he did against Cincinnati, it might be easier to avoid the recent run-game woes.
"I've got to continue to improve as a running back," Poole said. "I'm not where I want to be, I'm not where I need to be for this football team, so I've got to continue to make strides and get better each and every day."
Bray was named Southeastern Conference offensive player of the week for his 405 passing yards and five touchdowns against Cincinnati, but Dooley refused to give a verdict on whether the sophomore has exceeded the high expectations the coaching staff had for him entering the season.
"I don't want to put a measuring stick on what he's doing right now," Dooley said. "It's not a time for reflection. We're still in the war, so we don't want to kind of sit back and reflect on how we're playing because you've got to play the next week. I'll tell you if he exceeded expectations at the end of the year.
"But he's playing good. You can't hide that fact."
Florida has won six consecutive games in the series, dating back to the Vols' last-second win in Knoxville in 2004 on a 50-yard James Wilhoit field goal, but that of course has no bearing on Saturday's game.
"I think it's only relevant if the team makes it relevant," Dooley said. "I've said it all along: You can't be held hostage to the past. We've got a lot of different guys that didn't play in [last year's] game playing now. The bulk of our team, this is the first time they're starting against Florida. And guess what, they've got a lot of new guys, too."
Dooley reiterated that starting left tackle Dallas Thomas (sprained right knee) is expected to play Saturday. ... Starting defensive end Ben Martin left the Cincinnati game in the first half with a sprained ankle, and Dooley said he is day-to-day. ... Ben Bartholomew will start over Channing Fugate at fullback for the second consecutive game, though Dooley indicated both would play Saturday. ... Freshman tailback/return specialist Devrin Young, who has been practicing in a noncontact jersey as he recovers from a broken collarbone, will receive an X-ray this week and could return to play in the next game or two.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.