KNOXVILLE - Tauren Poole always has been honest and open in talking about his role for Tennessee.
The Volunteers' senior tailback broke from his normal character, though, when he strained his back on UT's first offensive play in a 33-23 loss at 15th-ranked Florida last weekend and failed to tell UT's coaches.
"I tried to play through it and I tried to fight through it," Poole said after Thursday's morning practice, "but it was just a gradual pain."
Poole burst through the right side of UT's offensive line for 10 yards on the play, but he had just 14 yards on his next eight carries as the Vols finished with minus-9 yards rushing.
"You could tell I wasn't the same back and the product wasn't there," Poole said. "That's no excuse. I played terrible. I've got to be better."
Coach Derek Dooley hopes Poole can use the Vols' open date to fully recover, though Poole was active in practice this week. Poole entered the loss to the Gators off a 101-yard performance against Cincinnati that Dooley called Poole's best performance since he took over as a starter last season.
"I think he's an inconsistent runner. That's what he is," Dooley said. "We saw it last year, and in three games now we've seen it this year. What I've always wanted out of him was just consistency, and I hope he can develop that over the course of the season. [Against] Cincinnati, boy he looked great, and that was a good team.
"That was not a bad football team, and he was running hard and his pads were low and he was accelerating through the defenders. In the other two games he didn't look the same."
The honest assessment resonated with Poole, who said he needs to see the holes better and trust his offensive line more.
"[Dooley's] very blunt about it, and he just said I've got to better," Poole said. "I've got to take that as a challenge. I really appreciate the challenges, so I've got to be better as a senior running back on this team."
Dooley said the running game is "not in desperation mode," but it certainly was an emphasis during the mini training camp this week. UT had veterans at tight end and receivers last year, which has helped those two positions and hurt others this year.
"You want young linemen to watch the old linemen go play some and then it's their turn," Dooley said. "You can learn so much from watching the guys ahead of you."
The offensive line still has four sophomore starters, and though the talent is there, Dooley said the unit might have been overrated heading into the season.
"I think they're playing significantly better than they were last year," he said. "Are they playing the best they're capable of? Absolutely not. It requires patience that doesn't exist in college athletics, and I recognize that. It doesn't mean that we're happy with how we're playing, it doesn't mean that we lower our standards, but there's a realistic approach of improvement.
"I promise you they're playing a lot better than they were last year."
That Other Line
Between the run-game issues and the loss of star receiver Justin Hunter on offense and the big plays allowed by the defensive back seven, the defensive line has gone under the radar this week.
Dooley commended how the rotation up front has played against the run, but he'd like more depth and more disruption.
"I think they're playing to their abilities and I think they've been doing their jobs," he said. "Are they disrupting the game? No. Are they making a difference in the pass game and all that? Not really. But they're playing solid; they're where they're supposed to be."
Dooley said the Vols are "fine" with continuing to rotate Ben Bartholomew and Channing Fugate at fullback. Bartholomew took over as starter against Cincinnati.
"You don't notice him," Dooley said of Bartholomew. "He's getting on his man and he's not really causing problems. That's good for a fullback."
Left tackle Dallas Thomas (knee), left guard Alex Bullard and right guard Zach Fulton, who left the field with a protective boot on his foot, all missed practice Thursday. Tailback Marlin Lane wore a noncontact jersey.
Defensively, linebacker Curt Maggitt returned to practice, but defensive ends Ben Martin (ankle) and Marlon Walls (banged up) stayed out.