Following a recent practice in Tennessee's sweltering pre-season camp, head coach Derek Dooley talked with ease about the ways in which sophomore tailback David Oku had impressed through the first half of the Vols' camp.
It marked the second time in a matter of days that Dooley had praised the once-mercurial Oku, who himself remembered a far different conversation he had with his new head coach in the spring.
"I approached [camp and practice] not being so dramatic. Coach Dooley talked to me last spring, he said 'You've got to work on (how) one time at practice, you'll be real (emotionally) high at practice. And then the next practice, you'll just be real low,'" said Oku, the No. 1 all-purpose back in the nation according to Rivals.com when he signed with the Vols in 2009 out of Midwest City, Okla. "'You never stayed at a consistent level between staying up and down. You just kept going up and down. You need to stay steady.' And that's what I worked on coming back from spring. Just staying at a steady mentality. Every special teams I've been on just makes you take advantage of it. So I think that's what it really has been."
Oku's assessment was in lock-step with that of his head coach, who recently tabbed Oku and redshirt freshman defensive back Eric Gordon as two of the Vols' biggest standouts this pre-season.
"It starts with his attitude. Everybody who is having a good camp, it starts with their attitude. They come to work with a smile on, they're embracing the grind, accepting it and enjoying it. Because of that (attitude) they show marked improvement everyday," said Dooley. "David's done that. He's played with great energy. He's run hard. He's showing improvement in his cuts, in his reads, with his pass protection. He's just showing improvement across the board. That doesn't mean he's a great player, but from where was this spring until now it's been very encouraging."
Had Dooley and Oku not talked at different places on different days, it might have seemed their answers had been choreographed. But perhaps that simply illustrates Oku's evolving.
"I saw some of it (stunts and movement by the defense). You've got to pick up on it, that's why you learn it. Last year I wasn't really good at learning defenses and things like protection-wise," Oku said following the Vols' most recent scrimmage. "This year I've done a lot of that with the coaches. Offensive line is just picking up. It takes time. That's why we work on this. They will be alright. I think we'll be perfectly fine."
Quarterback Matt Simms, who marveled at Oku's 34-yard screen pass for a touchdown Saturday night in which Oku made "four or five" would-be tacklers miss, said the competition in the backfield had bred a mutually beneficial work ethic between Oku and Tauren Poole.
"I definitely believe that Tauren has something to do with David, and I think that the harder Tauren works and the harder David works, both of them just keep pushing each other," Simms explained. "It's really exciting because David is a tremendous talent, and each day I feel like I get more comfortable with him back there and he's a tremendous blocker in the backfield. You can't say that about many running backs."
Oku couldn't say that a year ago. But his emotional maturation has been matched by what Oku described as a long-awaited physical maturation.
"Body matured a lot. I thought it would never do it in high school and get into college and I'm like, 'I'm going to be so small forever.' But it really has," said the 5-foot-10 tailback. "I've gained close to 20, 25 pounds. In a year. Which is unbelievable. I came in here last year at like 173, 175, which is unbelievable. I thank the trainers for doing that, past trainers and new trainers. (Strength coach Bennie) Wylie and everything like that. Thank God my body finally matured because I got tired of getting killed every single time on kickoff last year.
"I've got to pick up a little bit of one, two step and speed. I kind of feel like I lost a little bit since I've put on some weight. I think it's just about having to weight on for a long time and using it real good and learning how to manage it. That's what I have to work on, a lot more speed drills before we game plan for UT-Martin."
Tight end Brent Slusher can't remember having ever not playing football. Age 5? 6?
"No, not even. I've not ever not played," said the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Kentucky native. "It's just nice to be back out here.
"I tell you what, sitting was probably the hardest thing I've done. It's a lot harder to push yourself the same way these guys do [when sitting out is required]. You know, that eagerness when I finally was like, 'Hey, I'm going to UT' was kind of overwhelming. Like I'm ready to suit up and get on the field. We'll see come Sept. 4."
Like many of his fellow Vols, Slusher has taken a circuitous route to Knoxville. He signed with Auburn University and coach Tommy Tuberville out of xxx. He spent his first two collegiate seasons on The Plains but exited when Tuberville, like former UT coach Phillip Fulmer, was fired at the conclusion of the 2008 season.
"The coaches at Auburn, we brought in a new staff and I just kind of didn't feel the same as I did with coach Tuberville," he explained. "So I got my release. And of course I had to sit out a year. We started looking at places, and called a couple of schools. I think we called Texas Tech and a couple of other places, but Tennessee was one of the first places we called and they were the most interested. And that's where I ended up, and I'm glad I did too.
"There's not much more that I have to do. I'm ready to get back in classes, get back on the field and have some fun."
Listed as a senior on the Vols' roster, Slusher has no doubt about his ability to complement pre-season All-SEC tight end Luke Stocker in UT's offense.
"I think I can help them working on the blocking thing. I've put quite a bit of weight on since I was a freshman and sophomore at Auburn. I was 220, and now I'm 255. So that helps me out a lot. And I can still run my routes, I've still got my speed and stuff. There's not much change except I'm bigger and I can block a little better now.
"I think it's awesome [the tight ends' role in UT's offense]. I think we should throw it to us (tight ends) every time, but I don't call the plays (laughing)."
Say this for Chuck Smith: the former Vols' standout and NFL veteran probably doesn't even own a cookie-cutter. Why would he with the collection of transplants he's charged with readying for the Vols' Sept. 4 season-opener against UT-Martin?
"They're coming along. They're working hard. Are we where we want to be? No. We've got a ways to go, and we've got a short time to get there, but they're working hard and we're just trying to improve them," Smith said. "Vic Thomas is over there now with us, and he's a guy coming from the (offensive) line. A guy like Minor Bowens (walk-on from track) and Steven Fowlkes (converted from wide receiver to end to tackle). They guys I have are not the traditional interior guys. But we're working them and improving them every day. We need them to start taking some giant steps. We've made small steps, but I'm waiting for one of them to truly step out and take that giant step."
Smith neglected to mention that Rae Sykes has added 15 pounds, wishes to add 10 more and is adjusting from being a four-star defensive end out of Alcoa High School into a tackle. Gerald Williams arrived at UT as a linebacker. Malik Jackson? He's an end playing end, but he's only been on campus a few weeks since he transferred from Southern Cal.
And Arthur Jeffrey has continued his recovery from ACL surgery after redshirting last season.
"(Jeffrey) hasn't played in a while, and usually when you come back from an ACL it's a two-year process. I've been a part of that. He's improved. He's working hard, and now we've got to work on things like understanding how to strike, pad level and also teaching the guys to understand the game," Smith explained. "How to play certain blocks, how to read the scheme, you know, while you're on the field. Arthur's been working hard. He did well in the conditioning. Bennie did an excellent job with Arthur, and I think time is on Arthur's side. I think he'll be able to help us in the future, but he's definitely working hard and hasn't shown any signs coming back from his ACL."
Smith's lone healthy defensive tackle is sophomore Montori Hughes, who has impressive raw talent but needs refined.
"Montori's coming along. He's working hard. He has to keep working and stay focused and understand that there's no one bigger than the team," Smith said of the Murfreesboro native. "When you're playing,y ou've got to make sure you can't get 15-yard penalties. He had a couple (in Saturday night's scrimmage). He's a great talent. But I've seen guys with talent that you have to use it in the right area. Montori Hughes has a chance to be a good player. He's working like the rest of the guys to make sure they're strong on the field."
And Smith is coaching the motley collection to make sure they understand the Vols' defensive playbook and methodologies.
"They have to be molded around the scheme. There's no one player bigger than the scheme. So we have to develop the guys to fit the scheme. But no, they have to play a traditional way that we play so to speak," Smith said. "You try to put them in position to be successful, but there are certain things when you're playing against teams with two tight ends, you're either going to kick someone's butt or get your butt kicked. So I'm just teaching them. Teaching them how to strike, use their hands. That's the most important thing I want to change from the philosophy from last year, which is not a bad philosophy. At Tennessee, we use our hands on the line and have techniques to get off blocks. Now whether they do that is another story. But we're definitely teaching that and trying to teach them not the short-term buzz but the long-term solution."
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