At the start of spring practice, redshirt freshman running back Alden Hill was so far down the depth chart that the idea of him playing a meaningful role in Tennessee’s offense was hard to imagine.
Six weeks later, Hill capped an incredible spring with a nearly perfect Saturday afternoon in the Orange and White Game, rushing for 101 yards on 18 carries and catching three passes for 14 yards.
“Today’s performance summarizes his spring,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
Hill’s progress has been fueled by a combination of hard work and an unexpected opportunity. When Marlin Lane was suspended for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, Hill became the only real option after Rajion Neal.
Hill said he’s tried to keep the same mentality whether he’s working with the scout team or the starters.
“I just play like it’s the first team either way,” he said.
He rattled off an acronym for a running back’s responsibilities on each snap — alignment, pre-snap reads, eyes and steps — “APES.”
“I break everything down by little things,” he said.
Neal, who is likely to enter the season as the No. 1 back if Lane doesn’t return, rushed 11 times for 34 yards and added a 39-yard reception.
Lane was listed on the roster but did not attend Saturday’s game.
A busted thumb doesn’t sound like a dire injury for an offensive lineman, but for centers who must grip the ball on every snap, it’s a different story.
Mack Crowder, a second-team offensive lineman from Bristol, was recognized Saturday as the team’s most improved offensive player. But Jones said that was only part of the reason he was honored with the Harvey Robinson Award.
“He didn’t miss one rep in practice,” Jones said. “Mack has been hurt. He hurt his thumb, and he’s a center. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t miss one rep.”
A third-year sophomore, Crowder is unlikely to break into the starting ranks this season unless there are injuries, but his performance bodes well for 2014, when the Vols will have to replace four or five starters on the line.
Linebacker Dontavis Sapp won the Andy Spiva Award for the most improved defensive player. Hill, tight end Alex Ellis and defensive back Max Arnold won the John Stuck Iron Vol Award.
Jones handed play-calling duties over to the fans to start each quarter. A few young Vol fans earned memories for a lifetime, while Justin Martin of A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty” garnered the fourth-quarter call.
One young Vol fan reached into the bag of tricks to call a double-reverse to start the second quarter. UT defensive lineman Jacques Smith wasn’t in the business of making memories. Stalking out the reverse, the senior corralled Pig Howard and flung the 5-foot-8, 185-pound wideout to the ground for a loss.
Among the large number of former Vols in attendance, Arian Foster was pegged for an important duty. The Houston Texans running back spent a stretch of the first half spinning tracks from a Deejay booth near the north end zone.
Whatever Foster played worked. Soon after he took over Neyland’s musical selection, wideout Cody Blanc gave fans something to dance to with a 58-yard catch and run into the end zone. It stood as UT’s only touchdown of the day.
An announced crowd of 61,076 stands as UT’s second-most for a spring game in 53 outings. Whether the number is generous or not is in the eye of the beholder.
About a half-hour before kickoff, Neyland’s upper deck was as bare as Auburn’s oak trees at Toomer’s Corner, which enjoyed their last rolling on Saturday. (Auburn drew more than 83,000 fans for its spring game).
As kickoff approached, Neyland’s lower level gradually turned orange. Those arriving early for autographs filled the bleachers between the 10-yard lines. Those who enjoyed pregame cocktails and barbecue mainly occupied the end zone seats.
By kickoff, the lower bowl was nearly filled, while a few clumps of fans dotted some upper-deck rows.
Evan Woodbery and Brendan Quinn cover Tennessee athletics.