KNOXVILLE - Alton Howard's path back from the spot in limbo he occupied a few months ago to a spot on Tennessee's football team reached a big checkpoint inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
It might not have been the finish line, but it seems pretty close.
The junior wide receiver was absent from the Volunteers for spring practice, and his future with the program was very shaky. Yet there he was in Tennessee's first scrimmage two nights ago, making an impressive twisting catch for a touchdown.
"The past is the past," Howard said following Monday morning's practice, the first of two of the day for the Vols. "At the end of the day, I feel we're more closer as a unit, as a team, and we're working to get better each and every day."
As a sophomore last season, Howard, who's given name is Alton, led Tennessee with 44 catches, and his 388 receiving yards were second on the team. His best game and worst moment came in the overtime loss to Georgia, when he tallied 116 all-purpose yards and lost grip of the football as he reached for the pylon for a would-be go-ahead touchdown in overtime.
He then missed all of spring practice for undisclosed personal reasons. His path back to the Vols truly began when he stayed in Knoxville for mini-term classes in May and rejoined his teammates for the start of the summer strength and conditioning program.
Second-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones and the Vols' 13-man player staff worked together to provide Howard with some requirements he had to meet to keep his place, and so far he's done that and gotten off to a solid start this month.
"It starts with him first and foremost," Jones said. "It's self-accountability, but also, it's his teammates of holding him accountable. Some of those player-staff meetings were very, very intense. They laid out a structure, they laid out a plan that he had to adhere to, and they held him accountable."
Asked if he thought he career was over at any point of the spring, Howard replied, "Not at all."
He added: "Regardless of whatever was being said, I kept my mind focused, and I just worked hard to get back."
The 5-foot-8, 187-pounder from Florida felt he began regaining his teammates' in May, but he was vague when asked what exactly he had to do to earn his way back.
"Staying focused, doing what I need to do academically and just staying on top of all my problems," he said.
"Staying focused is the main part and taking care of everything."
Howard credited Tennessee's coaching staff for staying in touch with him while he was away from the team.
"I don't think we ever had no bad or good connection," he said. "I think all around it's been consistent. Regardless of what happened last spring, the coaches have always stayed in touch with me, and we communicated. I think our connection's been consistent."
Coaches have said Howard is in the best shape he's been in in his career, and Howard believes "there's another level" he can reach this season.
So far, Jones said, Howard has been "extremely consistent" and improved his demeanor and focus, and it's helped him make plays for the Vols in practice.
"He needs to continue what has got him to this point: the effort, the focus, the change in lifestyle, being more disciplined and enjoying being around," Jones said. "I think our players have done a great job of holding him to a high standard of accountability, but it really comes down to him.
"Alton is a talented football player. That's not been the question. It's getting the eight hours of sleep, getting the extra treatments, getting in the cold tub, spending extra time with Coach Z [receivers coach Zach Azzanni], not just knowing the slot position but all the positions on the field, being consistent in practice each and everyday.
"That's what we've seen so far from him, and it's a tribute to him and a testament to him. Now the challenge is to keep it up for the entire length of a football season."
Tailback Marlin Lane worked on the side with a trainer and in the hole, where injured players work out during practice, during the open viewing period of practice with his right ankle noticeably taped. ... Safeties Cortez McDowell and Todd Kelly, who tweaked a knee in Saturday morning's practice and missed the scrimmage later that day, were back at practice, as was cornerback Rashaan Gaulden, who's been nursing an ankle problem. ... Tennessee expected Derrell Scott to return, but the freshman tailback again ran on the side with a trainer. ... Defensive end Jaylen Miller, tight end Woody Quinn and guard Dylan Wiesman worked in the hole. ... Guard Austin Sanders has returned to practice after sitting out a few last week.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.