'I was non-existent'

After gaining just 18 yards on nine carries, Tennessee's No. 1 tailback isn't content to view himself as a non-factor in Saturday's 33-23 loss at Florida; he views himself as a non-entity.

"As you saw on Saturday the running game wasn't there," senior Tauren Poole said this week. "I was non-existent. That's not acceptable for this football team or for me as a player."

If Poole was a goat, it's probably because he tried too hard to be a hero. The 5-10, 215-pounder gained 10 yards on his first carry of the contest but strained his back in the process. Rather than alert the coaches to the injury, he tried to play through the pain. The result: Eight yards on eight subsequent carries before giving way to freshman backup Marlin Lane.

"I had a back strain and I couldn't move like I wanted to," Poole recalled. "That's not an excuse on my part, though. I've got to continue to take care of myself."

How much the back problem hindered Poole is something only he knows. One thing is for certain, however: He looked nothing like he did in rushing for 101 yards on 21 carries against Cincinnati seven days earlier, and that has his head coach upset.

"I think he's an inconsistent runner. That's what he is," Derek Dooley said. "We saw it last year and now in three games we've seen it this year. What I've always wanted out of him was just consistency. I hope he can develop that over of the course of this season.

"Against Cincinnati he looked great, and that was not a bad football team. He was running hard, his pads were low and he was accelerating through defenders. The other two games he didn't look the same."

Poole needed 24 carries to muster 98 yards in Game 1 vs. Montana, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision. That outing was a career highlight, however, compared to the debacle at The Swamp last weekend.

"Hat's off to Florida for playing harder than we were," Poole said. "They outworked us, outworked me, and they did it all game. We've got to be better and we've got to come out with more effort."

Tennessee's players were feeling good about themselves after trouncing Montana (42-16) and Cincinnati (45-23) in Games 1 and 2. Finishing with minus-9 net rushing yards in Game 3 at Gainesville was a slap in the face that snapped them back to reality.

"I think it was," Poole conceded. "It was embarrassing not to get the run game going. I think we had negative yards. It was very embarrassing, very frustrating on my end because I know we've got to run the ball in order to win a lot of ballgames."

That frustration isn't a recent development. Poole and his offensive teammates felt it set in during the Florida game.

"Yeah, it did, and that can't happen," he said. "We've got to keep a calm mindset and a great attitude. I definitely got frustrated because we couldn't get anything going. I can't be like that because the game's going to go against you at certain times, and you just have to continue to fight through."

Asked what will cure the Vols' ailing ground attack, Poole answered without hesitation.

"Playing fast, playing more physical and playing smarter football," he said. "We didn't play fast, physical or smart against Florida, and you see the results."

Realizing as much, Tennessee's coaches put the Vols through brisk workouts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday that featured a strong emphasis on power running.

"It's been heavy on physicality - running hard and running fast," Poole noted.

Now that star receiver Justin Hunter is out for the year with a torn ACL, Tennessee clearly will need a lot more production from Poole and the other runners.

"We're going to have to run the football, whether Justin's in or out," Poole said. "We're going to miss Justin — can't bring him back — so we're definitely going to have to run the football, be more physical and play better football as an offense.

"We've got to continue to improve. We can't change what happened at Florida. All we can do is focus on the next game, and that's Buffalo."

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