KNOXVILLE — Steven Fowlkes has identified his role in Tennessee's football defense.
Now the Volunteers' journeyman is trying to perfect his pass-rushing specialization.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound former receiver has the long arms and frame typical of a quarterback-hurrying defensive end, and the fifth-year senior has embraced his spot.
"I think that's an important role for the team," Fowlkes said after Thursday night's practice, the team's first since returning from its six-day getaway to Milligan College. "Coach [Derek] Dooley always talks about doing your role the best way possible. I understand that's my role, so every day I try to get extra work on pass rush, try to watch more film and try to get my pass-rush game right."
Fowlkes missed most of last season due to academics, though Dooley called him the Vols' best scout-team player earlier this month. He's played in just seven career games, and his last tackle was against UT-Martin in the 2010 opener. His winding road back to the program led him to a starting spot at the end of spring practice, but junior college transfer Darrington Sentimore's training-camp surge and the run-stopping emphasis of coordinator Sal Sunseri's new defense has turned Fowlkes into more of a specialist.
"The base guys have got to pass rush, too," Dooley said. "[The defense] is based on stopping the run, and the jury's out on whether we can do it or not. I don't know if we can.
"All of them have got to be able to pass rush, but we try to specialize a little bit given their body types on when to put them in the game. I think I've seen evidence we'll get more pressure on the quarterback. I have, and I think we will."
Tennessee finished 11th in the SEC in sacks last season. Fowlkes believes he's in a "good position" midway through camp. If the defense can hold up against the run and create passing situations, Fowlkes' role will expand even more.
"I understand the defense, I understand where I'm supposed to be, I understand where I go, and now it's time to start making plays," he said. "It's a great emphasis, and I feel like that's a key to having a good defense, is having a good pass rush. That's what we're trying to work on."
Dooley stunned everybody when he canceled Wednesday's scheduled second practice and brought the Vols home early from Milligan.
"It was like third-graders [on the] last day of school," linebacker Curt Maggitt said, flashing a huge grin. "Everybody freaked out. They were jumping around and it was a good feeling, a great feeling."
Added center James Stone: "It was joyous. Nobody really expected that at all. For Coach Dooley to do that, that was a real big surprise."
Dooley said he made the decision earlier Wednesday afternoon and joked he decided early enough to get the charter buses for the return trip to Knoxville. After the team took school buses to Milligan, the transportation and canceled workout were both rewards.
"I just felt like that we'd had a great camp, and it was a hard morning practice," the coach said. "They were pushing, and there hadn't been one negative complaint -- and I knew they were hurting. I felt like it was the right thing to do and they had earned it, and they probably needed it more than anything.
"If you look back at what we did that week, it's hard to look at it and say, 'Man, what could we have done differently?' That's rare for a move like that because I'm not sure there's anything we could have done differently that we felt like could have made it better. I have no complaints with our team's approach, how they handled it and some of the benefits that I think came out of it."
Marlin Lane seemingly has fallen slightly behind Rajion Neal and Devrin Young in the competition at tailback, but it's not really the sophomore's fault.
"Marlin's doing good, but I think it's more what the other two are doing," Dooley said. "Nobody's disappointed in Marlin. He's having a good camp and I'd like to see him go out there tomorrow night and generate big some big plays for us and do a great job in pass protection like he can do. He's going to play for us, and we're going to need him."
Dooley was referencing tonight's second camp scrimmage. Tennessee scrimmaged three times in his previous two preseasons, but the calendar and a more veteran team dictated two this year. It will more of a situational scrimmage geared toward evaluation, and it's Lane's final chance in the tailback race.
"I've been consistent [this week]," he said. "I've been more consistently mentally, just leaving meetings and striving for our goals that we have on the board: working on our punch in protection and reading our aiming points in the running game."
Tight end Mychal Rivera (knee sprain) and linebacker Herman Lathers (rest) will not scrimmage, but receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (shoulder) and safety LaDarrell McNeil will scrimmage in noncontact jerseys. ... Dooley again voiced concerns over his inside-linebacker depth, which has prompted the Vols to play it very safe with Lathers. For the first time, though, Dooley suggested Maggitt would slide inside if anything happened to Lathers or A.J. Johnson. "You hope," Dooley said, "you don't have to go down that path."
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 ...