Wiedmer: Vols will get quality from seniors if not quantity

Wiedmer: Vols will get quality from seniors if not quantity

August 30th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE -- Considering how long it took him to find a coach who appreciated his talents, Tennessee senior running back Tauren Poole could say he never thought this season would arrive.

After all, after Derek Dooley got the job before last season, Poole was on his third head coach in three seasons and the first two -- Phillip Fulmer, the man who inked him, and Lane Kiffin, the man who irked him -- let him run the ball a total of 32 times for 171 yards.

But as Poole departed the Voluntees' practice field Monday morning, he said of his first three seasons with the Big Orange, "It's flown by so fast. I've only got 11 Mondays left [not counting UT's off week]. I really can't believe I'm a senior."

Most folks can't believe UT has so few seniors. Only four are expected to fill starting roles on offense and defense in Saturday's opening game against Montana.

Austin Johnson will start at linebacker. Malik Jackson and Ben Martin will lock down half of the defensive line.

Every other starter except long snapper Nick Guess and probable return man Anthony Anderson will be an underclassman.

Beyond that, the only other senior expected to get noticeable minutes is linebacker Daryl Vereen. Reserve quarterback Matt Simms could, if something happens to sophomore starter Tyler Bray.

"It's probably the youngest football team I've ever been a part of and seen," Dooley said last month. "But we made a decision from the beginning that we weren't going to allow youth to be an excuse for failure, and we're not going to do that."

Poole will tell you he sees no need for excuses somewhere down the road.

"Everybody's got the right mindset," he said. "Guys are flying in and out of the huddle. The tempo is fast. It's a lot different than last year. I don't need to worry about anything but running the football. That's what I've always wanted around here."

All Austin Johnson wanted a month ago was to crawl under a rock and become forgotten, following an arrest for public drunkenness after a late-night altercation behind a bar on Cumberland Avenue.

"I should never have been there. I should never have let it happen," he said. "And I'm extremely grateful to Coach Dooley for letting me stay on the team. As I told both my coaches and team, you'll never see anything like that happen to me again."

What Dooley expects to see from here on out from Johnson is what he's seen every day since he got the job in January of 2010, except for that single July 24 night.

"I was like everybody else when it happened, I guess," Dooley said. "I was surprised because that's not the Austin I've come to know. But nobody was hurting more than Austin.

"We all do things we wish we could take back, and I think that's what this was. I think it was a blip on the radar screen that we'll never see again. And while I'm really proud of Austin for the way he's handled everything, it's pretty much exactly what I expected from him."

But what should we now expect from this tiny senior class? Should they be expected to lead by example, given that so few of them are expected to get on the field? Beyond that, will anyone listen, given that most of the best talent resides in the sophomore and freshmen classes, who surely are already developing their own leaders?

"I've got to lead my group," said Johnson, the only non-freshman starter at linebacker. "My first responsibility is to make sure we're lined up in the right places."

Said Dooley of his seniors: "They've been good. I think they've been great examples of how their approach has been every day -- to the program, to their work -- and I think they have enough vocal leadership that they've made a little impact on some guys."

Their ultimate impact won't be known for another three months. Could they possibly shock the world and win the SEC East? Will they return the school to its first January bowl game since the 2007 season? Or will the youngest team Dooley's ever seen post the school's third losing season in four years?

Said Poole with neither a smile nor a frown: "It doesn't matter now. The games are here no matter how old or young we are."

But only for the seniors could there be as few as 11 games left after Montana.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.