KNOXVILLE — Marlin Lane's absence has Tennessee's otherwise settled situation at tailback in flux.
Enter Alden Hill.
With Lane out for what Volunteers coach Butch Jones called "disciplinary reasons," the redshirt freshman got more first-team work alongside Rajion Neal and ran well during Saturday's scrimmage at Neyland Stadium.
"I've been hungry for this since day one," Hill said. "It doesn't matter if I have five backs in front of me, two backs, one back or I'm the back -- I'm going to come out here and every day I'm going to come out and work on the little things. That's really what I focus on.
"I'm not worried what the depth chart is as long as I'm improving and doing my little things, and that's helping me be more consistent this spring."
The 6-foot-1, 219-pounder from Ohio enrolled at Tennessee last January, but a case of mononucleosis knocked him out of spring practice. Already behind Neal, Lane and Devrin Young, Hill fell behind fellow freshman Quenshaun Watson and took his redshirt year.
With Watson gone, Young at receiver and Lane's future uncertain, Hill becomes an important figure for the Vols.
"Without a doubt, Alden Hill has showed up huge this spring," quarterback Nathan Peterman said. "Y'all need to be talking about him the most. I was on scout team with him last year, and to see his improvement from last year to this year is unreal, really.
"I think it really comes down to his work ethic in the weight room. He's there every night, doing extra steps and getting his steps right and doing all his runs. I'm really proud of Alden and really happy for him, too."
Though he may lack breakaway speed, Hill is a bruiser who's shown an ability to run between the tackles and doesn't shy away from contact.
"He continues to be steady, he continues to improve and I think he has to continue to learn that he's a physical style of running back and he needs to learn how to play that way," Jones said. "I think that's an ongoing process, but I've been really encouraged by what I've seen, and he's been a great surprise this spring. I think, again, [it's] knowing his strength as a football player.
"He's an interior runner. He's an inside runner, and I think a lot of young backs, they want to try to bounce everything to the sidelines, and that's what we're trying to teach him, how to run behind his pads, get north and south. He's an individual who should be able to get 1 or 2 yards always moving forward because of his power."
Jones said Lane, who also missed Thursday's practice, could return before the end of spring practice next week "depending on what he does." The junior accounted for 886 yards of offense and two rushing touchdowns last season. He missed one practice earlier this spring for what Jones said was a family health situation.
"We hold our players to a very high standard of accountability here at Tennessee, no matter what it is: the way we play, the way we win off the field, the way we go to class, the way we excel in the classroom," the coach said. "It's a high level of accountability in all aspects. ... Like I told our players coming in here, they're building their own identities.
"They're responsible for what they create by the way they perform on the field and off the field."
Peterman and fellow quarterback Justin Worley "took a step forward" Saturday despite some mistakes, Jones said. There's been little separation between the two, and as expected, the quarterback competition figures to go unsolved until preseason camp, when freshmen Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson will be in the mix.
"I want to see it continue to be openly competitive," Jones said. "I just think that's extremely healthy. I think in the world of football today you can't just have one quarterback.
"You need to have three quarterbacks and two quarterbacks minimum."
Tennessee scrimmaged Saturday with four healthy scholarship receivers due to injuries to Jacob Carter (ankle), Paul Harris (hamstring), Vincent Dallas (concussion) and Jason Croom (hamstring).
That meant plenty of work for Pig Howard, Young, Drae Bowles, Cody Blanc and walk-on Sam Cranford, and after a rough practice Thursday, coach Zach Azzanni's unit bounced back with a noticeably better performance Saturday.
"I felt like we picked it up," said Bowles, a redshirt freshman from Jackson, "and we discussed it in our position meeting that we needed to pick it up as a wide receiver unit, and we did. We were very productive today. Coach Z was really happy."
Young caught a flare pass, ducked a tackle and scored on one red-zone series. Howard caught two touchdown passes, including one where he juked cornerback Daniel Gray. Blanc and Bowles each caught a TD pass.
With Brendan Downs (knee) joining Justin Meredith on the Vols' injury list at tight end, Justin King made the most of his opportunity by catching two touchdowns, including a one-handed snag.
Though he missed five field-goal tries wide left from the right hash from 46 and 48 yards, Michael Palardy was otherwise accurate and appears to have the Vols' punting job locked up. ... Gray took the first-team reps at corner after Riyahd Jones, who later declared himself "fine" on Twitter, left the scrimmage with his left knee iced after breaking up a pass. ... Defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry also did not scrimmage. ... Jones voiced some concern over the mounting injuries with the Orange and White Game set for this Saturday. "It's a balancing act for the football coach," he said. "Obviously, you want to give your fan base something to see, but also we've got to keep in mind the health of our football team." ... Former Tennessee defensive back Inky Johnson, now a motivational author and speaker who lives in Atlanta, gave the team a passionate speech following the scrimmage.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...