SPARTANBURG Carolina Panthers rookie running back Tauren Poole earned his sports management degree at Tennessee in 31/2 years. He was academic All-SEC three times. He finished with a GPA of 3.26.
Poole won the Pat Tillman Award at the 2012 East West Shrine Game. The award honors perseverance, courage and talent. Tillman, who turned down a lucrative contract from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army, was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.
Poole rushed for 5,519 yards at Stephens County High in Toccoa, Ga. His junior year at Tennessee he rushed for 1,034.
He’s 5-foot-10, 215 pounds and strong. At the NFL combine he bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times.
I ask Poole what his running style is like.
“That’s a good question because I normally don’t talk about myself,” he says.
That’s true. I know about his academic and athletic accomplishments, and the Pat Tillman Award, only because I looked them up.
Poole was the lone senior to start for a bad Tennessee offense, and rushed for 693 yards. Carolina running backs coach John Settle, his coach at the East West Shrine Game, told him if he wasn’t drafted, Carolina would be interested. But Poole was projected by everybody, Settle included, to be picked.
Poole’s mother moved from Toccoa – 100 miles southwest of Carolina’s training camp in Spartanburg – to Atlanta, and Poole watched the first 10 picks there. He didn’t turn on the TV again until the fifth round, when he hoped to hear his name. He stayed through the sixth.
“After that I stopped watching and I just went off and drove somewhere by myself,” Poole says Thursday, wearing a black, hooded sweatshirt inscribed with Carolina Panthers in bright blue letters. “You know, it’s a dream come true getting drafted. Hear your name being called and you can only imagine how they feel, the great feeling of getting drafted. When I didn’t get drafted, I made my mind up I was going to come hard. I was going to work.”
He comes to a team that might be deeper at running back than any other position. In front of him on the depth chart are DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and at fullback Mike Tolbert. In front of him Thursday is Williams, who talks to several reporters next to a Carolina Panthers backdrop as Poole and I talk quietly nearby on a sofa and chair.
“I think every chance I get I’m trying to impress them any way I can, whether it’s pass protection or catching the ball out of backfield or running and making moves and just showing up on film,” says Poole. “I know they watch film. Showing up every single day, that’s my motto while I’m here trying to make the team.”
“Tauren has pretty good quickness, he’s run under a 4.5” seconds in the 40-yard dash, says general manager Marty Hurney. “He doesn’t necessarily have that one special trait you look at and say wow. But he does everything well. He’s been consistent since he’s come in and has done a very good job.”
Poole’s best work came when he ran a route against rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly. Poole has the choice of breaking outside or inside, depending upon how Kuechly reacts.
Poole put on a crisp move, broke inside and suddenly he was 10 yards away.
“Well, you got me today,” Kuechly told him.
“It was kind of your fault because I was playing off you,” Poole told him. “Luke just laughed about it.”
Camp is important.
“But I think that the real factor is going to be this game,” says Poole.
The Panthers will open their exhibition season at 7 p.m. Saturday against Houston at Bank of America Stadium.
“I doubt I’m going to be able to even sleep Friday night,” says Poole. “But I’m just glad they’re giving me a chance. That’s all a young guy like me asks for, a chance to run with it.”
Run with the ball and the opportunity?
“Yes, sir,” Poole says.
Says Hurney: “This is one of the preseason games where the young guys will get a lot of time, and it’s very important to show how you can do under the lights. Some guys step up when the lights come and that’s what we’re looking for.”
About the Texans: Their featured back is Arian Foster, a mentor for Poole at Tennessee. Like Poole, Foster rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a junior, fewer than 700 as a senior and was not drafted.
Foster signed as a free agent in 2009 and in 2010 he became a star.
“I know the Panthers don’t need me, but I can help, you know,” Poole says. “I want to show them I have what it takes. I can learn this offense. If you need me, I’m here.”