Derek Dooley on the Tennessee senior class
Tauren Poole walked off the practice field for one of the last times before a home game at Tennessee and stuck out a hand wrapped in tape.
The senior didn't have any injury listed by the program, and he laughed when asked what was wrong.
"Growing pains," Poole said. "This symbolizes the season, man. It's painful.
"It's been painful."
Physically, that was about what the senior expected at this point of the season after going through the grind that is life in the SEC as a featured running back.
But mentally and emotionally, Poole wasn't anticipating the need for a late push for bowl eligibility or planning on facing an elimination game against Vanderbilt in his final outing at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.). Nor was he expecting to be setting the pace for a ground game that ranks just 116th in the nation in rushing one year after carrying for more than 1,000 yards by himself — a mark the Vols (4-6, 0-6 SEC) haven't hit collectively yet this season.
In some ways, that just about perfectly sums up a career at UT that hasn't played out nearly the way Poole expected when he signed with the program nearly four years ago.
There were coaching changes. There was a frustrating battle for playing time as a seldom-used sophomore. And entering the season as one of the top returning tailbacks in the conference, there's been a steady slide out of the conversation as the Vols have struggled to find footing offensively.
But Poole has never been one to shy away from adversity, and starting with the Commodores (5-5, 2-5), his focus is locked in on the chance to write a happy ending instead of worrying about how he and the Vols ended up in their current situation.
"I want to finish off on a good note," Poole said. "Definitely don't want to finish off on a sour note. Coach ( Derek Dooley) was talking about it at the end of practice, we need to finish strong. It's tough because I know all these young guys want to finish strong, but they know they have next year. I don't have next year.
"I have to continue to be positive even though there's all this negativity around this program, even though it's tough. I try my best to stay positive and encourage as many people as possible."
With no margin for error at this point, the Vols need that attitude from one of their few senior leaders perhaps more than ever on the practice field. But they could also benefit from having a reenergized Poole at Neyland Stadium to help spark the offense by adding another productive performance to his resume before leaving UT.
There have been times down the stretch where even the optimistic Poole has appeared to struggle with confidence in his ability to do that, which is surely understandable as the losses stacked up and seven games went by without a 100-yard effort for him. But he's aware that time is running out, and the Vols can't afford to spend it feeling sorry for themselves.
"It's difficult not to share that frustration that our whole offense is sharing right now," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "But we're all in this thing together. It's still a matter of going out and executing and continuing to believe in yourselves and make plays. Our kids know that.
"It doesn't surprise me that (frustration) is taking place with any of our guys. It's difficult. It's a hard time, and college football teaches us lessons in these hard times. We've got to continue to fight that way."
And if the Vols can win the couple fights they have left, there's a good chance that pain Poole is feeling might just fade away.