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KNOXVILLE - David Oku sure doesn't look fat.

But he feels fat.

Just ask him.

"I feel fat," the Tennessee sophomore tailback said Thursday night. "I'm serious, man."

The 5-foot-10 Oku was asked to add weight after he played at 177 pounds last season. The former Oklahoma high school player of the year set a UT record last season for kickoff return yards, but his slight frame - and some guys named Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown - prevented him from playing a larger part in the offense.

Oku, new and improved at 198 pounds, now looks more like a Southeastern Conference tailback.

That doesn't mean the adjustment has been easy.

"It's hard having this weight on you and you're not used to it," Oku said. "I'm just walking around sluggish. People are like, 'You look like you've gained 20 pounds.' I take that as an insult. It used to be like, 'You're skinny. You're small.' Now it's just, 'You're fat.' It hurts. I've got feelings. I've got emotions."

"I feel like Jerome Bettis."

None of the half-dozen players interviewed Thursday by the Times Free Press confessed to poking fun at their most loquacious teammate. On the contrary, they followed their coaches' lead in praising the man currently No. 2 on the tailback depth chart.

"David's improved tremendously," senior linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "His in-between-tackle play has improved. We're all impressed with him. He makes me miss tackles. He makes everybody miss tackles. He's going to be a good back.

"He's definitely an all-purpose back, and that will definitely help our team tremendously."

Pass protection was admittedly a huge obstacle for Oku to overcome. His high school playbook featured dozens of plays designed to get him the ball, but only one that required him to pass block.

As a college freshman, Oku's preferred method of pass protection was the flail and bail.

Now?

"He looks like a small guy in there, and it looks like you can just bullrush him, but he has some strong legs and he can anchor down on you," said junior linebacker Austin Johnson, who played fullback last season. "I've got to juke him. He is definitely stronger than he looks."

Said sophomore defensive end Willie Bohannon: "He is a little thicker. You can't just run over him anymore."

Oku added the weight to become more of an every-down option for the Vols, but he said he'd be OK with serving a more specialized role behind starter Tauren Poole.

His special-teams role won't diminish unless Poole misses time with an injury.

"Either title is fine with me," he said. "I want to be an every-down back, but at the same time, I like my role. If I have to come in and be a third-down back, I'm fine."

Oku didn't have the best spring, something he freely admits in hindsight. He went so far as to call himself a "crybaby" at times. Coach Derek Dooley asked the emotional player to bring a more consistent approach to preseason camp.

"Everybody who is having a good camp, it starts with their attitude," Dooley said. "They come to work with a smile on; they're embracing the grind, accepting it and enjoying it. Because of that, they show marked improvement every day.

"David's done that. He's played with great energy. He's run hard. He's showing improvement in his cuts, in his reads, with his pass protection. He's just showing improvement across the board. That doesn't mean he's a great player, but from spring until now it's been very encouraging."

There should be more improvement as Oku gets more adjusted to the 20 extra pounds on his body.

"I'm fat, but I still have my speed," he said. "It's just harder to get going. It's hard to hit second gear now with all that weight.

"We've got to work on that. We've got to work on that."

Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

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