KNOXVILLE — The first fan arrived at Neyland Stadium at 4 a.m. Saturday to start the line for the one-hour autograph session with Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and his players.
The caps on the Sharpies, though, wouldn't come off for another eight-plus hours.
The annual Orange and White Game to wrap up the Volunteers' spring practice was 11 hours from kicking off.
"That's crazy," Vols cornerback Cam Sutton said after the Vols put the finishing touches on their second spring under Jones. "I know I would definitely not be out there. We greatly appreciate those fans being out there today."
The announced crowd of 68,548 fans at Neyland on a warm April afternoon was the second-most for a Tennessee spring in the program's history, besting the crowd of 61,076 for Jones' first showcase a year ago yet falling short of the 73,801 who came to watch the Vols' spring game coming off a memorable Sugar Bowl win in 1986.
It took little time for Tennessee's promising young talent on offense to make itself known and perhaps even less time for the countdown to the arrival of summer defensive reinforcements to begin.
Freshman receiver Josh Malone, a five-star recruit who joined the Vols in January, gained 181 yards on six catches with touchdown catches of 49, 6 and 79 yards, and the second-team defense allowed touchdowns on six of the seven times it took the field.
"I think we have really improved our throw game, but on the flip side of it, unacceptable defensively," Jones said. "We're very, very thin there. We'll welcome 18 new additions in June, and I believe off the top of my head, 16 of them are on the defensive side of the ball. We have to get them ready to play."
Though they should be finishing their senior years of high school, Malone and Jalen Hurd, a five-star tailback recruit, both look ready to play. Hurd turned a short catch into a 27-yard gain on one of his first touches and finished with 66 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Jones said the 6-foot-3, 221-pounder would be a "special player."
"Hurd, he's a young guy, and he's obviously wanting to impress the coaches," center Mack Crowder said. "He comes with a good attitude every day. He's just got to get some things worked out, which will come with time."
An offense devoid of big plays in 2013 had a handful of them.
Rising senior quarterback Justin Worley had a 49-yard run and hooked up with receiver Marquez North for a couple of big plays, including a 50-yard score. Sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs had a 59-yard touchdown run and the 79-yard over-the-top touchdown to Malone, the smooth 6-3, 202-pound former Station Camp High School standout.
"The explosiveness out of our skill group has been impressive," Worley said, "and it's been a huge change from year one to year two."
Malone's first catch was a simple bubble screen he turned into a 25-yard gain, and he capped that drive by snagging a third-down throw from Dobbs on a post pattern for a 49-yard score.
"Josh has been pretty much doing that all spring," Jones said. "He's kind of went through the maturation process of a wide receiver the last three or four practices with the sore legs and the sore hamstrings, and I think the grind academically. But Josh is a competitive young man and very, very talented. You can see he adds a whole other dynamic to our offense.
"Josh has been an individual that right from practice one, he can be as good as he wants to be."
With spring football positives there always are countering concerns, and Saturday for Tennessee it was a defense that for the most part was missing two key players: All-SEC middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, whom the Vols limited by choice, and safety Brian Randolph, who's out after shoulder surgery.
"I left here a year ago at this time obviously very concerned about our throw game and big splash plays, and that kind of showed itself this past season," Jones said. "That's in the past. I'm very encouraged by what I see, but we have a long way to go. I'm very concerned -- which we'll get corrected -- up front defensively and our tackling in the back end."
The hope is that the crop of defensive newcomers have the same impact as early enrollees such as Malone, Hurd, receiver Von Pearson, tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm and right tackle Coleman Thomas have had this spring on offense.
"It's everywhere, and it starts up front on the defensive line," Jones said. "That's no secret. Everyone in our football program knows that. These individuals have to be ready to go. Is it a great challenge to get a 17- or 18-year old ready to play in the SEC at that position? Absolutely, but that's where we're at in our program. It's a tremendous opportunity."
"We have some players, but it's an overall depth. The thing I was kind of disappointed with in the spring game today was the drop-off from ones (starters) to twos."
Defensive end Curt Maggitt, who took home an award for spring leadership, said it'll be important to get those newcomers ready to go right away.
"I think it's going to start with leadership ... getting those guys in and getting them on board," he said, "because they're not going to have as much time as the guys that came in early. It definitely will help a lot, with depth for sure, and different playmaking abilities. We won't have time to take baby steps. We've got to go."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
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 ...