Final push: Running back David Oku coming on strong at end of season

Tennessee tail back David Oku cuts the corner during the second quarter Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 in Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.

Photo by Michael Patrick

Tennessee tail back David Oku cuts the corner during the second quarter Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 in Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.

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David Oku was never really gone, so it's not a return.

The Tennessee running back doesn't think he was ever in the doghouse, so he hasn't been let back off the leash either.

But the sophomore was certainly an invisible man for nearly a month in the middle of the season, jump-starting questions about what exactly had happened to one of the nation's best recruits from a season ago. Oku didn't have any answers then and still doesn't seem to now, which makes his diminished role in the heart of the season and reemergence heading into Saturday's final against Kentucky (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.) somewhat mystifying to even himself.

"I mean, everybody was wondering what was going on," Oku said. "But Coach (Derek) Dooley felt like I wasn't doing good. Down the stretch a little bit, he felt like just not playing me for a second would get me back going right. I guess it worked out, so you can't argue with it.

"I mean, as a player you don't see it. But I guess coaches see it sometimes different. I was wondering myself what happened. I didn't go in and question it or ask any questions or anything like that. I was just like, 'All right, ride it out and see what happens.' That's basically just what happened."

Little has happened this season the way Oku might have planned, and considering the expectations that came with his high-profile recruitment and flashes of his potential a year ago, he readily admitted to feelings of frustration while buried on the UT (5-6, 2-5 SEC) bench for most of October.

Looking for more intensity, sharper cuts and quicker decisions, Dooley promoted freshman Rajion Neal to No. 2 on the depth chart and Oku only took one handoff as the Vols lost four straight games.

Oku still hasn't shown the type of conviction running the ball that Dooley has been looking for, but even with just six attempts for 16 yards and one catch for 34 in the win over Vanderbilt last Saturday he showed some signs of getting it back - if it was ever gone.

"I mean, I wouldn't say it was the doghouse, because I feel like if I was in the doghouse, I would have known I was in the doghouse," Oku said. "I knew that I wouldn't have been doing anything at all, period. Also, just the fact that if it was the doghouse, it would have been terrible, it would have been real bad. I knew it wasn't the doghouse, so that's the real good thing about it.

"I mean, a little down the line in the middle of the season, (Dooley) said he felt like practice had changed and I wasn't upbeat like how I always am, out laughing and goofing around and stuff like that. I guess he felt like it was a little bit different and that I didn't seem the same. He said I just needed to go back out there and it would be fine. That's fine with me."

That approach has worked well enough to get Oku back in the rotation as the Vols prepare for the Wildcats (6-5, 2-5 SEC), though there's still plenty of room for improvement for a tailback averaging barely more than 2 yards per carry over the last three games.

But the Vols need somebody other than just Tauren Poole to carry the load, and that guy again appears to be Oku.

"He's our two (backup) right now," Dooley said. "He's played better than any of the other guys trying to play two. I don't think anybody has been as productive as a two as we needed them to be.

"(Oku) has had a much better attitude in practice and brought a lot better energy in practice. I think he hit a little point of the season where he was struggling for whatever reason, and a lot of players do. This is a long season."

The middle wasn't what Oku expected, but he's got a chance to salvage it at the end.

Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.

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Comments » 41

chap4tenn2 writes:

First.

NTNSTY writes:

OKU = Class Act

nocleats writes:

When the breaks go against you, add more steam!!

SouthALVol writes:

Wondered where he had been. Glad to see the commitment still there.

tnsportsman writes:

MAN UP OKU! You have amazing talent, settle in and do your thing to help OUR VOLS!

GO VOLS, WE ARE UT!

vol88 writes:

Keep working hard, David.

PrimeTime writes:

I think that Oku can be a good number two if he would trust his vision. He looks too hesitant, I think it will come in time, but there isn't much time left. Can anyone tell me what happened with Tony Williams? I'm guessing it has to do with the knee injury, just curious. It normally takes two full years to get all the way back from an acl, especially a RB. GBO, beat the cats!!

OrangePride writes:

David is a tough kid with a lot of talent and he is easy to like. His attitude is great and he is a good spokesperson for Tennessee. I am hoping to see him on one of those breakout games. He is VERY good as a receiver out of the backfield and, at this point, it is his most productive role. But he does need to get his ground game going and we need him to do it Saturday! GO VOLS.

orange_n_peoria writes:

Oku has the talent & he seems to be a good guy - just needs to hit the hole a little harder

dvols writes:

yep!

pdhuff#552644 writes:

A little blocking for this year's run game might help also.

Our SEC ranking in this category is not impressive.

TommyJack writes:

"final push"???

PUL4VOLS writes:

I have a question, where is the poster who had inside information that Oku was transferring and that the players had quit on Coach Dooley? Things are not what they were then. I still want to know where that posting dude or should I say dud, got his information.
Good to see Oku back and we will be needing him on Sat. and in future days. He's got what it takes to do the job. I hope he gets out there and does it. Here's hoping for a big Vol win on Sat. As for that earlier poster, next time get a life and get a real source of information from Rocky Top before you insult our team and embarrass yourself.

dwolfcreek#397971 writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEAR:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Neal slacked up ..................

FatElvis writes:

David is a SEC back and next year he should have a SEC line to help his numbers.

Cldvols1 writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

What's a matter CSS your Friday not lookin too good?

orangecountyvols writes:

Go Vols...........and beat Kentucky.

If we could convert 3rd downs in football, or have as great a percentage shooting free throws in basketball as this troll.............S0calledVandygrad, AKA
IloveSaban has on GoVolsExtra.............we'd be really doing well.

For instance, if there are 2 posts, he's sure to be one of them, or if there are 20 posts, he has half of them. A very high percentage of useless chatter from this very useless troll. If there were a site called GoTrollsExtra he'd be running the show.

PlaidinOrangeandWhite writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Uh, Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, DaRick Rogers, Juwuan James, Janzen Jackson, Jacques Smith; no, we don't have any special guys for the future. Get real. These guys have valuable experience this year that can only help in the future. Next year we win 7 or 8 games. In two years, we will be competing for a SEC title. Bank on it!

xRockyTopVolsx writes:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

hokies4ever writes:

in response to xRockyTopVolsx:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Perfect dude that was an awesome response!

jobrando#216494 writes:

in response to tnsportsman:

MAN UP OKU! You have amazing talent, settle in and do your thing to help OUR VOLS!

GO VOLS, WE ARE UT!

Should be hoping for the line to man up and we will see Oku magically wake up. Hopefully next year it will happen.

vol_4_fan writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Hello, is Poole not leading or at the top of the league in rushing yards per game? Go Vols!

HallowedHill writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

It seems someone is still crying over Vandy's loss last weekend. Face is kid, Tennessee played poorly and still beat your team by 2 TD's. Tennessee may not be the strongest team in the SEC now, but we can still field a team of freshman, play poorly and beat your team.
Grow up and get a clue.

GO VOLS!

DooleysOrangePants writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

dont worry about our 3-4 star recruits. alaBUBBA is having enough trouble with all their 5 star recruits. you know 2 losses on a team that thought they were going to be back to back national champs and all. ha ha
good luck with that iron bowl and all. loss number 3.

richvol writes:

Oku has not been impressive in any way yet. The thing that does impress me is the way the two Bama backs run. They attack the LOS and run as hard as they possibly can every time they touch the ball.

I love what Coach Dooley said when he hired Wilcox..."his defense plays like their hair is on fire". That's what Oku and Neal need a dose of.

tennvolsman19651965 writes:

Our lack of depth on the offensive line has shown through this year. Last year, Oku showed real promise with an older O line. His senior year, he will be able to sprint through canyons. Be patient Oku, your time is coming.

dead_vol_foul (Inactive) writes:

The Tenn RB's should take a look at Travis Steven's UT career. The guy was 'okay' as a freshman and soph, only played when Jamal Lewis went down. Took a redshirt year when Travis Henry was a senior....then had an absolutely GREAT senior season. Nealy got us to an NC game.

Anyway, Travis did this with extremely hard work in the off-season. He really filled out and got great balance.

MusicCityVol writes:

The Streak Has to End Sometime

www.checkerboardchatter.blogspot.com

TommyJack writes:

in response to Navalorange:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Naval, all coming from his cubicle down at KNS...Maybe they will let them off early today for the holiday.

tnsportsman writes:

in response to jobrando#216494:

Should be hoping for the line to man up and we will see Oku magically wake up. Hopefully next year it will happen.

Very True jobrando, the O Line needs to Man Up too! All OUR VOLS need to focus and protect the damn ball.

Good RBs needs great blocks by the O line, but great RBs only needs good blocks.

VOLNATION lets get to Neyland early and BE LOUD!

GO VOLS, BEAT ky!

tennrich1 writes:

in response to PlaidinOrangeandWhite:

Uh, Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, DaRick Rogers, Juwuan James, Janzen Jackson, Jacques Smith; no, we don't have any special guys for the future. Get real. These guys have valuable experience this year that can only help in the future. Next year we win 7 or 8 games. In two years, we will be competing for a SEC title. Bank on it!

You know Plaid, I agree. Sometimes on here you read a post and think, "What in the world is this guy talking about?" We have great talent at several spots...just not deeper enough yet and need to upgrade the bigs...then we'll be okay...Pay not attention to the man behind the curtain!

tennrich1 writes:

in response to richvol:

Oku has not been impressive in any way yet. The thing that does impress me is the way the two Bama backs run. They attack the LOS and run as hard as they possibly can every time they touch the ball.

I love what Coach Dooley said when he hired Wilcox..."his defense plays like their hair is on fire". That's what Oku and Neal need a dose of.

Richvol, Lets not forget the line they have dictates most of that...Really, ALL of that!

johnlg00 writes:

I think I read in the pre-season that Oku had gained about 20 pounds since last season. He said at the time that he didn't think he had lost any speed doing it, but maybe he did. After all, he is not really a big guy, so that is a pretty BIG gain for his size. I agree with another poster who said he seemed hesitant in making his cuts, so maybe that is another result of his weight gain. He seemed to be having the same trouble on his kick returns as well. Maybe next year he will feel more comfortable with his weight and run with more decisiveness. Of course, I also agree with the posters who said that this year's green O-line hasn't exactly been blowing major holes in opposing defenses.

KM297 writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Average or not, Poole's numbers stack up against any in the conference even before you factor in the inexperience and inconsistency of an underclass O-line. No one special? How would you rate Justin Hunter's performance so far? And as far as 3-4 star recruits, I'll gladly take 28 of them come February. Last time I checked Rivals, there were only 16 five-stars in the country.

opatVOL writes:

in response to CantStandSaban:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

yes, tauren poole is average when he has more 100 yard rushing games than anyone else in the sec besides cam newton even behind our young and inconsistent offensive line, you make a fantastic point

FarmerVol writes:

Dave is a slot back or a tail back, not a power back. Never has been never will be, cause he ain't built for the position in the SEC. MIght have been big enough in HS, but this ain't HS. C-USA is close to HS but I digress. In fact, next year Dave should move to receiver if he wants playing time cause we gonna throw it 95% IF the Gunslinger can stay in one piece. Or unless Little Dool finds a Hershal. GBO and I will see you all from my seat in the South End Zone. I will be the one wearing Orange and Jack Daniels.

LiveFaith writes:

Oku reminds me of Derrick Tinsley in more ways than 1.

A little small
Quick, but not ultra quick
Cuts well, but not Charlie Garner level
Good hands
4* HS
Never quite the starter, but productive

BigOrangeinCharge writes:

To me, it always seemed like Oku would be better off switching to WR. He's got speed and hands, but he's a little small for RB, looks a bit tentative hitting holes, and doesn't break many tackles. I'm thinking that if the Vols had more depth at RB and less at WR, he'd have already moved.

BigOrangeinCharge writes:

Poole is a good RB to have and I'm glad he's had such a big year. I hate to say it, though, but one of the things that's holding him back (and probably really held him back last year) is that he doesn't have much vision for finding holes in the zone running game that UT still uses. In a zone scheme, the back has to read either the G or the T's block and cut off that. Hardesty was really good at this last year, but Poole very seldom gains yards when he has to make that cut.

TKO writes:

Another over-hyped high school back.

SunshineVol writes:

He does appear to be a step or two slower this year.

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