Jacob Carter was walking off the practice field two weeks ago when he was given a somewhat ominous message: "Coach Dooley wants to speak with you."
The junior receiver, who had labored for more than two years as a walk-on, had no inkling of the surprise that was to come.
"Coach Dooley kind of pulled me to the side of the field and said, 'I'm going to give you a scholarship this year,'" Carter said. "I didn't know what to say. I was just like, 'Thanks.' "
Things got better for Carter.
Not long after earning the scholarship, Carter learned he would travel with the team for the first time.
On Friday night at the Georgia Dome — his 21st birthday — Carter caught his first career reception in Tennessee's win over N.C. State.
"It's been crazy," Carter said.
Carter was the beneficiary of Da'Rick Rogers' departure last month — which likely freed up the scholarship that went to him — and a series of injuries that thinned out the depth in Tennessee's receiving corps. Competition for playing time will be stiffer as more players return from injury, starting when the Vols (1-0) face Georgia State (0-1) at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: PPV, 4 p.m.).
But when the opportunity arrived, Carter seized it.
"He's worked really hard to earn where he's at," said receivers coach Darin Hinshaw. "He understands the offense. He understands three or four positions. We can put him anywhere. That's value."
Carter played football, basketball and soccer at Ensworth High School in Nashville and joined the Vols as a walk-on in 2010, Dooley's first year.
He was one of 10 players who caught a pass against N.C. State. Carter's 20-yard reception came on an important third-and-6 play in the second quarter.
Dooley said Carter's performance in games was no surprise, since he's been making consistent contributions in practice from Day 1.
"He's made some remarkable plays in scrimmages time after time," Dooley said.
Getting noticed by coaches is one thing. Moving up the depth chart is another.
"Walk-ons always have it the hardest, because you've got to prove it over and over and over," Dooley said. "You're always putting the scholarship guys ahead of them because you just can't bear to admit you made a mistake."
Now Carter is a "scholarship guy," at least for this year. Aside from the morale boost, there's a practical benefit to his new status: Free tuition.
"My parents were pumped about it. It was a big relief for them," Carter said. "They were probably as excited as I was, and I was pretty excited. It was great news."
It was news Carter didn't expect to hear until after this season, if at all.
Now the challenge is maintaining his progress even after returning players make the depth chart more crowded.
"We have a lot of talent," Carter said, "but I'm going to continue to try and contribute."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.