KNOXVILLE — Jalen Hurd was midway through a drill in Tennessee's practice on Thursday when Robert Gillespie stopped the freshman tailback and told him to start it over.
Before Hurd could resume that second trip through three defenders mimed by a manager holding a blocking pad, the Volunteers' running backs coach explained the details of the drill.
Gillespie then took a more hands-on approach, physically lifting the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Hurd's left leg to show him the importance of planting it for balance as he bounced off the pad.
Roughly 24 hours later, inside Neyland Stadium, Hurd flashed his ability by tough running between the tackles, his speed in the open field and his shiftiness, which is impressive for a player his size, during Tennessee's first scrimmage of the spring.
"I thought Jalen Hurd really started to run like we expect him to run," head coach Butch Jones said after Hurd excelled in Friday's scrimmage. "He still needs to learn how to get the ball north and south. I see our younger players starting to gain confidence in their style of play and our team syle of play.
"I'm encouraged by what I see with [receiver] Josh Malone and our young tight ends. Defensive line, that's a developmental position. Same thing with our offensive line. We're asking a lot of these young freshmen, but we're going to need them."
That's certainly the case with Hurd, the five-star recruit who was the crown jewel of Tennessee's impressive 2014 recruiting haul. Amid concerns about his shoulder -- he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum last August -- and his height at a position not always suited for 6-foot-3 players, it's so far so good for Hurd five practices into his college career.
Gillespie spoke at length with the Times Free Press following Thursday's practice about coaching Hurd, the freshman's response and the strong offseason of rising senior Marlin Lane, who was sidelined this past week with a wrist injury.
Q: Over in that drill earlier in practice you were physically lifting Jalen's leg and making him restart the drill. How much is he having to learn these first few practices?
Gillespie: "A lot. Jalen's gotten by on a lot of natural ability. I think his coaches in high school [at Beech in Hendersonville, Tenn.] did a really good job of obviously coaching him to where he is now, but on this level we're able to slow it down and teach the small details of it.
"There's no doubt he's done that drill before. He's actually got his pads down and run over guys, but just making him slow it down and why he's doing it, the perfect technique of it, those are the things we get a chance to do in practice. That's one of the things we talk about today was just him dropping his hips and using his shoulder and ripping through the defender.
"He's a talented kid, but now we're just trying to slow it down and make him understand all the details of being a great running back."
Q: He's a legitimate 6-foot-3. Have you ever coached a running back of that size, and maybe what are the challenges of coaching one that tall?
Gillespie: "I don't think there's any challenge. You get what you recruit. He's an athletic kid. He bends. That's why Alabama wanted him. That's why Florida wanted him. That's why Ohio State wanted him. There's no doubt he can play the running back position.
"He's one of the fastest guys on the team in change-of-direction. He bends well. He jumps well. He lifts. He's a talented kid. I don't think you coach anybody any differently. I don't think you coach a 5-foot-10 linebacker any different than you coach A.J. [Johnson]. I just think they get the same teaching. A.J. can bend, the 5-foot-10 guy can bend and you go on.
"I don't think there's a different way you coach him."
Q: How is he handling the teaching mentally? Is his head spinning a little bit at this point?
Gillespie: "Yeah, I don't know which kids aren't. I played the position. As a freshman, I don't remember anything about my freshman season. It was, 'Take the ball and run.' And it's probably no different than probably Marlin and Rajion [Neal] was.
"He's not going to come in here and be Barry Sanders, and we understand that as a staff. We're going to have to be patient with him. We have to be mindful of how much we give him and how much we don't and how much we put him in. I'm very selective on the plays I put him in and the plays I don't, so his head's spinning just like any other kid's.
"But the thing is he wants to go. He wants to know more. He's [irritated] when he's not going. That's the great thing. I mean, if he was running and hiding behind the pile, I'd be worried, but the fact that he wants to go, I'm excited about it."
Q: With Marlin, Coach Jones has said he had a really good offseason. What have you seen from him? Is he maybe a different player?
Gillespie: "He's doing really good, man. Just from the moment the game was over at Kentucky, the lights came on. I think he saw the success that Rajion had once he bought into it, the 1,000-yard season and how Rajion continued to improve, and I think he saw that [snapping fingers], 'You know what, this is my time. I'm going to do everything I'm supposed to do.'
"He's been a coach off the field when I'm not around. When I'm coaching guys, he's over there coaching another set of guys. He's getting on Jalen for not doing certain things and the effort he's putting out, so he's been really, really good so far. Obviously he's put on a little weight, and he's doing a really good job so far."
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 ...