Max Arnold didn’t necessarily feel slighted when coaches would walk past him without saying a word last year.
He knew that thankless anonymity was just part of being a walk-on, and he expected few perks when he decided to come to Tennessee rather than play football at a smaller school.
But when the new staff arrived last December, something changed. Suddenly, he didn’t feel like a walk-on, but just a football player.
Arnold was one of the pleasant surprises of the spring, capping the session with an interception return for a touchdown in the Orange and White game.
“It obviously felt good, seeing the results of my hard work in the offseason, but nothing is written in stone,” Arnold said.
The depth chart — written on paper — says Arnold began the spring listed as the second-team safety. In some first-week team drills, Arnold worked with the first group.
“I’m not going to count myself out,” he said. “Whether I’m on the depth chart or not, I always feel like I have a chance.”
A third-year sophomore, Arnold was a quarterback at McKenzie, a small town in West Tennessee located between the more exotically named cities of Milan and Paris (and also not far from Dresden).
“I felt very well prepared coming up here,” Arnold said of his high school experience.
Rather than pursue a scholarship at a smaller school, he opted to attend Tennessee, the school he had grown up cheering for.
He arrived with no illusions.
“I knew it was going to take a long time with no payoffs,” Arnold said. “You’re going to walk by coaches and they’re not going to notice you.”
That changed in December.
“This staff right now? We’re all family,” Arnold said. “A coach would never walk by me and not say, ‘Hello.’ Me or any other walk-on. We’re a brotherhood. We’re tight.”
Arnold was named an “Iron Vol” in the spring, an award recognizing hard work in the weight room. That was a bigger deal to Arnold than the spring interception that captured more attention from outside.
“We have so many hard workers on this team. People have no idea how hard we work,” he said. “The award meant a lot to me because it was voted on by my teammates ... There’s so many guys they could have voted for. I didn’t vote for myself.”
Arnold’s path to playing time will likely include the special teams, which is where head coach Butch Jones said he must continue to focus effort. At safety, he will have to fend off an influx of youthful competition, but Arnold still has a chance to stay in defensive backs coach Willie Martinez’s rotation as the season approaches.
Arnold said he’s reached one goal already. After being worried to even drink the Gatorade when he first arrived, he now feels “needed.” He knows he’s in a position to be more than practice fodder.
“As a walk-on, that’s really what you want,” he said. “You want to feel needed and wanted on the team. When you get that feeling and feel appreciated, it just makes you hungrier.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.