Tennessee Stat Book
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.