Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: One of Tennessee’s standouts on Saturday won’t be a household name. There won’t be a feature about him in the game program. There’s a good chance he’ll be a walk-on.
Tenuous depth has made coaches cautious about injuries. An audience of tens of thousands in the stands and watching on television has made them cautious about revealing too much of their schemes.
The result will be an Orange and White game, like many spring exhibitions around the country, that relies heavily on players who might not be in the starting lineup come August. But it also means coaches have an opportunity to reward their walk-on warriors with a rare day in the spotlight.
“We’ll be pretty vanilla,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said about the game, which begins at 2 p.m. at Neyland Stadium. “But I think you’re going to see a good product.”
Some of the potential spring-game heroes could be more than one-day wonders.
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni was openly disappointed about the progress of his unit this spring and acknowledged that not all the current walk-ons would survive the cuts and make it to fall camp.
A notable exception, Azzanni said, is second-year walk-on Sam Cranford from Nashville’s Christ Presbyterian Academy. Cranford could even start on Saturday.
“He’s actually one of our most consistent receivers, as a walk-on. It doesn’t matter that he’s a walk-on,” Azzanni said. “He’s dropped some passes here and there, but he’s also got thrown into the fire when he didn’t think he was going to. I’m pleased with the way he responded. He’s been a solid contributor, and I want him to stick around.”
Another walk-on who could play significant snaps is reserve offensive lineman Jacob Gilliam, a fourth-year player from Knoxville.
“Jacob’s really made some strides this spring that I’ve been encouraged with,” said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. “You’ll see a lot of him.”
With Marlin Lane suspended, Alden Hill and Tom Smith are the only two running backs behind starter Rajion Neal, who is likely to play sparingly on Saturday. Walk-on Deanthonie Summerhill also could get a lot of snaps.
“He’s a smart kid,” said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. “If you’re not one of the most athletic, strongest, fastest out there, you have to do the little things right. He asks really good questions in the film. He watches film like he’s a starter. And that shows up.”
Two of the team’s four scholarship tight ends are out with injuries, giving more opportunities to walk-ons like Alex Ellis and Charles Folger, both of whom have made nice catches in practice in the last week.
Tennessee coaches readily acknowledge that the team that takes the field on Saturday may not be ready for prime time. But they hope fans notice the change in “culture” that’s been ingrained during the last three months.
“They won’t a perfect product out here on the field,” Azzanni said. “I just want everyone to see improvement, a different attitude in kids, and a different culture of doing things.”
First-year coach Butch Jones, who has urged fans to turn out in large numbers Saturday, said the team is eager for the audience.
“I really think our fans are going to like this football team,” he said. “I think they’re going to see a football team that’s going to give their all for Tennessee.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.