Friendly competitors

Friendly competitors

No. 2 tailback David Oku scarcely broke stride after scoring on a 44-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of Tennessee's season opener vs. UT Martin. Instead, he hustled to the Vol bench to show off to the guy he follows on the depth chart.

"He came to the sideline and he was like, 'Let's go, T, let's go,'" No. 1 tailback Tauren Poole recalled with a smile. "I was like, 'All right. I got you.'"

Oku wasn't taunting Poole; he was motivating him by issuing a sort of "I made a big play, now you make one" challenge.

"I was really happy for him," Poole said. "That's what we do. We compete every day. We do the same thing on the practice field. I know David is going to make me work hard, and I appreciate him for making me do that."

Poole answered the challenge on his first carry of Tennessee's next possession, racing 22 yards for a first down. Then, late in the second quarter, he bolted 24 yards for a touchdown that bumped the Vol lead to 20-0.

Oku retaliated with a 21-yard run early in the third period but Poole responded with a 14-yard touchdown burst near the end of the quarter that widened the gap to 41-0. Backup tailbacks Rajion Neal and Toney Williams got all of UT's carries thereafter.

Poole finished with 110 yards on 17 carries, Oku with 77 on just six carries. Based on those numbers, Oregon's LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner may not be the only formidable 1-2 punch on display when the Vols and Ducks collide Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

"As you saw, David kind of set the tone on his 44-yard run," Poole said. "I knew he was always capable of doing stuff like that; he just didn't get a chance to. I think we've got a lot to offer this offense, and I know the coaches feel that way. We've just got to continue to show it. We've got to continue to go forward and not go backwards."

Tennessee has a great situation at tailback these days. In addition to being good competitors, Poole and Oku are good friends. An exchange that took place shortly before kickoff of the opener with UT Martin illustrates the point.

"I was messing with David. I told him that if Coach told me to come out I wasn't coming out," Poole recalled. "He said, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'Na, I'm just playing. I wouldn't do you like that.'"

The playful competition between the two tailbacks keeps them loose but it also keeps them on their toes. Each knows that he must perform well in order to keep earning his carries.

"We continue to do that in practice; we challenge each other," Poole said. "When he made the 44-yard run he challenged me to do the same thing. He said, 'I want to see you get your first touchdown.' I said, 'Hopefully, I will.' That's the big thing. There's no conflict going on. We continue to compete and we're going to compete at the highest level."

Poole (5-11, 213) is average size for an SEC running back. Oku, who arrived a year ago at 5-10 and 175, was a skinny scatback. He has since put on 20 pounds, however, and become a virtual clone of Poole in terms of physical appearance and running style.

"It's pretty similar. Me and Dave are kind of the same tailback," Poole conceded. "That's why you see nothing change when either one comes out. It's the same exact thing. We've just got to continue to grow at the tailback position. Neither one of us is where we want to be, and we both know that. We've got to continue to mature and get better."

Poole has extra motivation to "get better" this weekend. Oregon's James is one of the more heralded running backs in America, having been the Pac 10's Offensive Freshman of the Year for 2009 after rushing for 1,546 yards. Obviously, the game is Tennessee vs. Oregon, not Poole vs. James. Still ...

"I know about him from last year," Poole said. "I know he's a dominant tailback. Man, I really try not to focus on that (individual matchup) but I know I have to bring my best game because he's going to bring his best game."

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