Strictly by the numbers, Tennessee appeared to at least have the possibility of entertaining a change at running back.
The backup heading into Saturday’s first scrimmage of spring piled up yardage and touchdowns while the starter struggled to do either, seemingly leaving the door open for a reversal of roles.
But context is everything, and a simple comparison of the defense that shut down Tauren Poole and the one that couldn’t contain Rajion Neal was enough for the Vols to keep the status quo.
If anything, Poole may have actually solidified his spot at the top of the depth chart as UT moved past the midway point of spring camp.
“Rajion ran against the (second-team defense) and got most of his yards,” Vols coach Derek Dooley said on Tuesday. “It was not a defense you’d be proud of if you watched it. JT would have had about 94 yards against them, Rajion had (152) — and JT, as you know, is my 12-year-old son.
“Rajion is getting better, I just told him that he’s doing a lot of things a lot better and that’s encouraging. But he still does some things that are absolutely horrendous that we’ve got to get out of his game. But he’s making a lot of progress. You know, it’s good, he’s doing good. I shouldn’t put it all on the twos, he made some nice runs.”
According to the statistics provided by UT, Neal essentially made all the pretty plays on the ground at Neyland Stadium while Poole was singled out for a disappointing effort as he prepares for his second season as the feature back.
But despite the nine-carry, 21-yard effort over the weekend, that status for Poole hasn’t changed any for the Vols. Aside from the different level of competition he and Neal each faced during the live action, the scrimmage also represents just a small sample-size that doesn’t appear to be indicative of the way the senior has been playing at this point in camp.
Poole may still have some occasional troubles making the right read or cutting his losses instead of trying to bust a long run, but even without a breakout performance against the first-team defense he’s been earning high praise.
“I think Tauren really, to me, has improved as much as anybody in the first six practices,” Dooley said. “Now, he didn’t get the results in the scrimmage and a lot of it wasn’t his fault. But I think Tauren is running better, he’s working harder, he’s less affected when things aren’t going his way, so I’m pleased with his progress. I think he’s being a lot more decisive as a runner.
“He’s not there yet, but he’s on his way. He’s doing things this spring that he didn’t do all last year, and that’s good.”
At this time a year ago Poole had ripped off some long touchdowns, grabbing hold of the job with huge gains in scrimmages and making clear he wasn’t going to let it go.
But he also was showing tendencies to strike out if he didn’t hit a home run even then, an issue that didn’t go away even on the way to a 1,034-yard campaign — and one Poole readily admits he must correct no matter which defensive unit is on the field against him.
“I think I’m making minimal progress,” Poole said Saturday. “Of course I’m not where I want to be, and I hope nobody is because we’ve got to get better as a football team. But I’m getting there, I’m definitely not there yet. I’m listening to the coaches, I’m critiquing myself on every little thing and I’m paying attention to the details.
“I can’t get down, man. You know I love to break long touchdowns, but I’ve got to roll with it. That’s the adversity you face as a running back. You’re not going to break long ones every game, and you’re not going to break them every practice. Hats off to the defense, you know, I’m proud of those guys. They attacked it — and I needed that.
“Out of anybody, I needed to see that, lower myself a little bit and know that I always have to work hard and for what I have.”
What Poole doesn’t have at this point are eye-popping statistics like Neal. But he appears to have maintained his firm grip on the starting job anyway.
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.