KNOXVILLE — Turning big high school wide receivers into quick college defensive ends has become increasingly popular in the football world.
But moving high school wide receivers to defensive tackle?
“Yeah, it’s kind of crazy,” University of Tennessee sophomore Steven Fowlkes said.
Fowlkes would know.
He’s one of the first case studies.
Fowlkes arrived at UT two years ago as a 6-foot-5, 213-pound prospect who played wide receiver for Atlanta-area Banneker High School.
Then he was a 225-pound defensive end.
Now he’s a 253-pound defensive tackle who will have to play for the depth-depleted Vols, even if he’s not 100 percent ready.
“I didn’t ever think they’d move me here, but they did, so I’ve just got to play,” Fowlkes said. “I’ve just got to play.”
The Volunteers have been crowded at defensive end and thin at defensive tackle since Coach Derek Dooley arrived on campus this winter. Someone had to move. That it was the team’s lightest defensive end was a surprise, but coaches thought Fowlkes could help inside.
All sides involved had to deal with immense frustrations from the switch. Fowlkes was listed at 240 pounds when he moved, but center Cody Pope laughed and said, “more like 220.”
“Really all I have is my leverage from my long (arms),” Fowlkes said. “I’ve just got to get off blocks.”
Pope, who played tight end, guard, offensive tackle and defensive tackle before settling in at center, praised Fowlkes’ patience.
“It’s tough, but he’s a team-first type of guy,” Pope said. “He’s not thinking about himself. I know Steve pretty well, and anybody around here will vouch for him and say he’s a team-first type of guy. If they want him to return punts, he’ll do it.”
Pope said he can “definitely tell a difference” in Fowlkes since the spring.
“His pad leverage was so high, but now he’s coming off low,” Pope said. “He’s kind of a wiry guy, so a lot of times you don’t think he’s going to have a lot of pop, but he’s gotten a lot stronger. He’ll get into you if you’re not ready for him.”
Sophomore Marlon Walls’ Achilles rupture further necessitated the need for help at one of football’s most crucial positions. Fowlkes is competing with junior Rae Sykes, redshirt freshman Arthur Jeffery and senior Victor Thomas for the starting spot next to big sophomore Montori Hughes. Those four hope to improve their form after Dooley likened them to a “sack of potatoes” earlier this week.
The Vols are awaiting word on junior college defensive tackle signee John Brown, but Dooley said that probably won’t come for “another couple days.” The former Florida Gator conditioned on the side during Thursday’s morning practice, but he wasn’t in UT apparel and didn’t work with the team.
“Marlon went down, and it was disappointing for the D-line, but I’m just trying to step in and do my job,” Fowlkes said. “That’s all I can do. We’re in the SEC. Big teams are going to come at us, and somebody’s just got to step up.
“When one man goes down, another man’s got to step up and get the job done. That’s football.”
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.