KNOXVILLE — With the full-speed 11-on-11 work completed, Pig Howard took the stage at Neyland Stadium at the conclusion of Tennessee's football scrimmage Saturday afternoon.
With his teammates watching from both sidelines, the Volunteers' receiver stood 40 yards from long snapper J.R. Carr and punters Michael Palardy and Matt Darr.
Butch Jones, Tennessee's new coach, issued a simple challenge: catch five punts in a row.
As the footballs were sent flying into the sunny Knoxville skies, a fitting noise -- the shrieking, grunting and squealing of what sounded like a wild boar -- began to blare and rattle off the 102,000-seat stadium's metal bleachers.
"That one was Joe Harrington," Jones said, passing the credit for the creative distraction onto Tennessee's long-time video guru. "That one was kind of a surprise. He got me on that one."
Though a couple of punts got the best of Howard, the rising sophomore said he didn't even notice the intentionally distracting noise designed just for him.
"I tuned out all the noises," said the 5-foot-8, 185-pounder from Orlando. "In game time, you don't really hear the fans when you're on that field. He did it to distract me, so I just mentally tuned in and tried to focus on catching those punts.
"I didn't try to focus on what was being sounded, so I just tuned in on the punts."
As a freshman, Howard handled a few different roles offensively, but he didn't return punts. After saying he was "very concerned" about that spot earlier last week, Jones challenged Howard and Devrin Young at the end of Saturday's third spring scrimmage. Once Howard caught five straight after dropping two, Young, the rising junior from Knoxville, caught five straight without a hitch.
"Those situations," Howard said, "are going to better us for the games, and he's just trying to find a way to get us better each and every day."
Howard had more carries (14) than catches (13) last season in an offensive role that included reverses, jet sweeps and his own wildcat package, out of which he threw a touchdown pass to tight end Mychal Rivera at South Carolina.
On an offense searching for playmakers and replacing most of its production at receiver from last season, Howard has focused most of time on playing the slot position, where Young, a former tailback who's also a shifty, quick diminutive player, also is splitting reps. Based on scrimmages and practices, that role includes reverses and middle bubble screens. The duo has shown its speed and agility in one-on-one drills and could become matchup issues for opposing safeties and linebackers.
"They've definitely been stepping up," quarterback Justin Worley said of the Vols' slot pair earlier this spring. "Devrin's doing a great job transitioning from a running back and a kind of a skill player into a slot receiver. Pig's doing a great job as well.
"They're definitely dynamic out on the edge."
It's not been easy, however, as Howard, like the rest of Tennessee's young receiving corps, has had his struggles this spring, including a drop-filled practice last Thursday.
"I had some issues," he said. "I didn't let that affect me, and at the end of that practice I finished strong. Coming into today, we had momentum as a team, and I was feeling better."
Jones, who's rarely called Howard by the popular nickname he earned as a small child -- "When I was little," he told the Times Free Press after committing to Tennessee more than two years ago, "I was fat and I was fast." -- said his coaching staff has challenged Howard.
"We're pushing him in everything," the coach said, "and I think Alton has so much skill and so much ability, but again it's a level of consistency day in and day out. That's what makes good players, and before you can be good you have to be average. Before you can be great, you have to be good.
"It's nothing more than a work ethic each and every day, and he understands that, but we're really stressing a high level of consistency with him."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com 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 ...