KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's no secret that a large portion of the hype swirling around the Tennessee Volunteers' spring football practice has centered on highly rated prospects Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone.
After Saturday, it's no secret why.
The future was on full display during the Orange and White Game in Neyland Stadium, and an announced crowd of 68,548—the second-largest ever to watch a UT spring game—was there to see Hurd and Malone show out.
They didn't disappoint.
Malone was electrifying in leading the Vols with six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns. The Gallatin, Tenn., standout pass-catcher had been improving throughout the spring and dominated defenders when the ball was thrown his way.
Josh Malone … He’s pretty good! 6 catches 181 receiving yards and 3 TDs! pic.twitter.com/MHnX7GpmE5— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) April 12, 2014
So Josh Malone’s OK. Might have a future.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) April 12, 2014
Hurd had 93 yards on 12 touches, including 66 on the ground, a 6.0 average and a short touchdown run. Glimpses of his immense talent were evident even if he couldn't get loose for a game-breaking play.
A 129-100 win by the White team (offense), thanks to a silly scoring system that rewarded individual accolades, situational victories and forced turnovers, among other things, was a mere footnote.
The crowd wanted to see all the newcomers, including the 14 representatives from head coach Butch Jones' highly rated recruiting class.
Hurd and Malone highlighted that group, and the dynamic duo from the Midstate was at its best on the biggest stage so far.
"Josh has been pretty much doing that all spring," Jones said. "You can see he adds a whole other dynamic to our offense. I said it in the offseason: We have to be able to throw a 5-yard pass and turn it into a 20-yard gain. That was missing from our offense last year, and we've really helped ourselves in recruiting. Josh has been an individual that, right from practice one, he can be as good as he wants to be.
"I think we’ve really improved our throw game, but on the flip side of it, unacceptable defensively."
Indeed the defensive drop-off was drastic between the Vols' first and second teams. A large chunk of the yardage from Hurd and Malone came against those reserves, but that did nothing to dampen the buzz they generated throughout the stadium and even among their teammates.
Sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs—who had a breakout day of his own, completing six of nine passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns—especially showed a rapport with Malone. Two of his three scoring passes went to the freshman.
Dobbs said having weapons like the youngster at his disposal is huge.
"It’s amazing," he said. "It's honestly a quarterback's best friend. You have people like Marquez, Josh Malone, Jason Croom, just bodies that you’re able to just throw the ball up and know they're going to come down with or no one’s going to come down with it. It's huge for us, especially when we get in the red zone."
North, who added 106 receiving yards of his own, said matter-of-factly of Malone, "He's gonna take off."
Hurd never quite exploded on Saturday, failing to break through to the second level. But that didn't stop him from still having the best day of any Tennessee running back.
Part of that was the fact that Marlin Lane saw all of his action against the first team, but Hurd showed flashes of his dynamic athleticism in the open field on a 27-yard catch. He also impressed his coach between the tackles.
"Jalen continues to progress," Jones said. "I thought he had some hard-earned yards today. I thought he dropped his pad level, but again, it’s him understanding football rewards those who are in great shape.
"I thought there were a couple times he didn't pick his heels up, and he went down on a shoe tackle, and in this conference, you can’t do that. But Jalen's going to be a special player for us."
On Saturday, both Malone and Hurd looked like they're capable of being special immediately. Even though it was one glorified practice session, they flashed the physical abilities that UT hasn't produced enough of in years.
5-star special: Josh Malone leads the team in receiving (6 catches 181 yards, 3 TDs) & Jalen Hurd leads in rushing (11 carries, 66 yds, TD)— Daniel Lewis (@DanielNooga) April 12, 2014
They're a big reason why Tennessee is heading into the offseason believing this offense is capable of surprising a lot of teams this fall.
"It's impressive," rising senior quarterback Justin Worley said of the duo, "and speaking for myself, I enrolled early and my first spring was a struggle. It is hard to get adjusted to what the coaches are asking of you and the rigorous schedule that you're put through, so having those two guys show out like they've done…"
Worley never finished his thought. Perhaps it was difficult for him to put into words what Hurd and Malone have done in a such a short time.
With play like Saturday's, they'll be leaving plenty of people speechless.
All quotes obtained firsthand.