DRAFT DROUGHT: WHERE ARE THE VOLS?
The number of Tennessee players selected in the NFL draft by five-year increments the past 25 years, with number of first-round picks in parentheses:
• 1977-81: 19 (three)
• 1982-86: 28 (six)
• 1987-91: 27 (six)
• 1992-96: 30 (five)
• 1997-2001: 30 (six)
• 2002-06: 30 (four)
• 2007-11: 18 (six)
The last times Tennessee went consecutive drafts when the first player taken was selected after the ...
• First round: 2003-05 (the 2003 and 2005 drafts had second-round picks) and 1995-96 (both drafts had second-rounders)
• Second round: 1971-75 (the 1972-74 drafts had third-round picks) and 1966-67 (both had third-rounders)
• Third round: 1959-63 (the highest player taken was center Mike Lucci, who went to the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of the '61 draft)
KNOXVILLE -- Tauren Poole kept looking for a familiar face.
The former Tennessee tailback would have no luck in finding one.
The Volunteers' presence in the NFL's annual draft in April and the scouting combine in late February has decreased in recent years. Poole and defensive lineman Malik Jackson were the only 2011 Vols to work out in Indianapolis last weekend.
"I think it's real odd," Poole said this past week, "and I was thinking about that while I was there at the combine. I see guys from schools like Miami that had six or seven guys there, and Tennessee used to be like that. I'm like, 'Man, this is crazy.' We'll be back.
"This is just four down years for Tennessee, and now it's time to get the program back on the rise. It's been a tough road for UT, but I see positives in the program. Hopefully we can get guys in that combine."
Out of the SEC, Alabama and LSU each sent eight players to the combine, and Georgia and South Carolina had seven and six there. The Vols, however, are 23-27 over the past four seasons, and it's shown in the NFL draft.
Tight end Luke Stocker and receiver Denarius Moore went in the fourth and fifth rounds last year, which ended a five-year run of first-round Vols picks.
In three of those years, UT had a defensive lineman go in the first round. Since 2000, UT has had 14 defensive linemen taken in the draft. Jackson, who transferred from Southern California before the 2010 season, hopes to be the next in line.
"I was naive when I first came to Tennessee, but once I figured out the history of the great linemen, I just wanted to keep that going and just be a part of that," he said from Phoenix, where's he been training. "You see all the legacies that people left behind as far as D-linemen, you just want to add on to that and be just mentioned with the greats. That's all I'm trying to do is go out there and make a name for myself and hopefully be remembered in Tennessee's history."
Projected as a midround pick, Jackson might end up making history in a way he'd not prefer. If he isn't picked in the first three rounds, it will be the first time since a five-year run from 1959 to 1963 that the Vols have not had a player taken in the first three rounds of consecutive drafts. If Poole goes undrafted, it'll be the second time in four years UT has just one player selected (Robert Ayers in 2009).
After rushing for 1,000 yards as a junior in 2010, Poole took a step back last season, as UT's offense struggled with injuries and poor play. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder performed well enough in the practices leading up to the East-West Shrine Game in January to earn an invitation to the combine.
Moore's senior season in 2010 raised his stock enough to get him drafted, but Poole, who's been training in Boca Raton, Fla., is ignoring his disappointing final season as he prepares for April.
"I didn't feel any kind of pressure, man," he said. "When you love to do something, there's no pressure at all. I love to run the football; I love to play the game of football. I went to the East-West Shrine Game saying that I was just going to stay focused and prove that I wasn't going to let the senior campaign that I had define me as a player.
"That's the way I took it: I was focused and I was ready for the challenge. I live for challenges, and my last season at Tennessee was a challenge. There's nothing I can do about it, and now the question is how will I respond ... because I just can't let that define me as a person -- and, most importantly, as a player."
Jackson always was openly grateful for the opportunity he was given at UT. He left the Trojans' program in search of more playing time, and after moving inside to defensive tackle midway through the 2010 season, he flourished into the Vols' best and most versatile defensive lineman. At 6-5, he's got the kind of reach that makes him an attractive player, and the 284-pounder has added 15 pounds since his UT career ended.
"I think Tennessee really prepared me [for the NFL]," he said. "To see other SEC players that are so dominant, that helped me a lot. I'm just glad I got the opportunity to come see what it's like in the SEC and play with the best."
Even though he went through three coaching staffs and three losing seasons and nearly transferred after his sophomore year, Poole said playing at UT has prepared him well in everything from handling tough questions in interviews from the local media to X's and O's.
"The resources that UT offers are astounding, and I'm just glad I got the opportunity to go to UT," he said. "A lot of the young guys have got to realize that the resources are there, you've just got to take full advantage of it.
"It gets you ready. Tennessee definitely prepared for it, and I definitely don't regret anything that Tennessee has done for me."
Now Poole and Jackson are trying to return the favor by reaching the sport's highest level.
"You've got to carry on the legacy and let people continue to know that Tennessee has great, great student-athletes," Jackson said. "I'm sure neither of us really had the season that we really wanted to as far as winning games, but we still put in a lot of hard work. It worked out for the best because we got to go to the combine and show our skills, so I feel like that's a big thing for us.
"We've just got to try to keep it going."