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March 25, 2013

Ellis doesn't sugarcoat drive to be a Vol

Alex Ellis no longer thinks much about it.

Having seen the improvements in Ellis' physical makeup from his arrival in Knoxville until the opening of spring camp, tight ends coach Mark Elder didn't either.

But Ellis, the Vols' sophomore walk-on, is a diabetic. During a recent practice, Ellis' teammates gave Elder a reminder.

"It's really only come up one time that it's slipped my mind he's a diabetic and I was hollering at him, 'What do you think you're doing?' because he was eating a 'goo' and tried to jump right back into the drill and the rest of the guys were like, 'Coach, he's diabetic. You've got to give him a minute,'" said Elder, UT's bright young tight ends and special teams coach. "So, he's a great kid and he tried to jump back in, but I told him, 'We're not calling the hospital because I'm an idiot.' So I told him to take care of himself and stay over there and do what you've got to do and come back in when you're ready to go.

"He's only missed one maybe two reps because of it. He does a great job of staying with everything and making sure it doesn't affect him, but I know it's a lot of work because I always see (head nutritionist) Allison (Maurer) with him."

Ellis hardly looks the part of anyone coping daily with a health condition not necessarily conducive to football or athletics. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder credits both his family background and Mauer's presence.

"The training staff, we have the best training staff in the nation. Miss Allison, our head nutritionist, she is the most amazing nutritionist or person you could ask for. She's the real deal. All the credit goes to her," said Ellis, attempting to work toward medical school with a biomedical engineering major. "Also, my mom and dad, everybody is in the medical field in my family, so they really know how to work it. It's not like I'm just shooting into the dark with it."

Nor is Ellis content to allow the diabetes to hamper him from competing for playing time at a position of great need for Tennessee. Mychal Rivera graduated after a record-setting 2012 season, and Ellis has battled alongside fellow sophomores Brendan Downs and Justin King during the first two weeks of the Vols' first-ever spring camp under Butch Jones.

"I'm just trying to work as hard as I can right now. I mean, everybody's goal is to get onto the field," said Ellis, a star quarterback and lacrosse player at his Del Mar (Del.) High School. "I'm just trying to contribute to the team any way I can. That's where I'm at right now.

"Definitely, everybody's fighting for the position. B-Downs and J-King, it's all competition right now and they're really good. I've got a long way to go. We'll see what happens."

While Elder occasionally sees Ellis managing his condition during practice, the Vols' assistant coach also sees a player committed to the position, team and the program.

"It speaks volumes about him as a young man. He has made a great commitment here to be successful and he's proving he can play here at this level and he's had a great offseason," Elder said. "He's put on, I think, 15 pounds, and you look at him and you he doesn't have an ounce of fat on him so that's probably 100-percent muscle he's put on this offseason. If you weren't paying close attention you wouldn't know he's diabetic because he works straight through everything.

"He's doing a great job. All winter long he did a great job in our conditioning and I think he's coming along. He's athletic and he's got a good skill-set and I think he'll be able to help us in a role this fall."

Indeed, Ellis credited both Mauer and head strength coach Dave Lawson for helping him get into the best possible shape for this spring camp. Ellis noted he added 15 pounds and dropped three-percent body fat. Ellis said some Football Bowls Subdivision programs studied him out of Del Mar, as did numerous smaller schools.

But Tennessee offered the chance to walk-on and see what Ellis could make of the opportunity.

"From Delaware, you don't get too much recognition, but shoutout to Del Mar. It's just a small town and we play big teams. We're just a small town. We're scrappy, that's what we are," Ellis explained. "I played quarterback, and Navy wanted me for a little bit. Because we ran read-option. But I'm a diabetic and being in the Navy and being diabetic … they check your body over and over. Duke had a little interest, and a lot of smaller schools had a lot of interest. But Tennessee said 'Hey, you can come down and see what you can do' and I've just been working on butt off."

During the Vols' first scrimmage of spring camp, Ellis worked with the second-team offense and was noticed for both his physical play and ability to catch the ball. He doesn't intend to let up.

"I feel like I can do anything with hard work," Ellis said. "As a competitor, I feel like you want to be the best. That's what I'm trying to work to and I feel like I can do that."


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