KNOXVILLE - Calling Steven Fowlkes a non factor last season would have been an understatement.
The Tennessee defensive end didn't play a single snap and missed most of the season due to academics.
Yet there was the fifth-year senior on Saturday afternoon, standing at midfield inside Neyland Stadium during halftime of the Orange and White spring game and receiving an award as the Volunteers' biggest defensive surprise of spring practice.
Though he finished with just three tackles and one quarterback hurry in UT's spring culmination, it couldn't diminish what Fowlkes has done to put himself there.
"It meant a lot to me," he said. "After sitting out last year, I just wanted to come out with a clear mind, a clear head and just play ball and not have to worry about nobody on my head. The only thing I had to worry about was making plays.
"That's what I tried to do this year, and I just thank God. He gave me the opportunity to where I was able to do it and win an award, so I'm blessed."
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Fowlkes laid claim to the award with his performance in UT's first two spring scrimmages. He had sacks in each of those outings and possesses the length to provide a pass-rush off the edge in UT's new 3-4 defense. UT coach Derek Dooley has been complimentary of Fowlkes all spring.
"He was ineligible last fall," Dooley said, "and I'm really proud of his ability to stay with it on scout team all last year and stuck with it and has had a great spring."
Fowlkes, who began his UT career in 2008 as a receiver, has bounced all over the defensive front seven, from end to tackle to outside linebacker. He's found a role at end in coordinator Sal Sunseri's new scheme. The next step is adding weight, which will help him hold up better in the trenches.
As for his return from academic trouble, Fowlkes expressed gratitude to his teammates and coaches for their continued support.
"No matter what's going on with me," he said, "they always have my back. They've always been there for me. I think that helped me along the way. I've got a lot of confidence. I always felt I could do it. I always felt I could play the game. It's just getting my mind and my body together.
"This year I feel like I knew what I was doing a little bit more [because] there was little better teaching, so I was able to take what I do in the meeting [room] and the film room to the field."
Numerous defensive players said Saturday they felt like they'd made progress learning UT's new defense, but Dooley lamented the Vols' inability to stop the run. The Orange and White squads combined for 251 yards on 45 carries. That's nearly six yards per carry.
"I think we're going to have to do some things to stop the run," the coach said. "Nobody's really put their hand in the dirt on [the] defensive line and lined up and said, 'We're going to whip your tail.'"
Dooley attributed some of that to a veteran offensive line that has made strides of its own this spring. After making the running game an emphasis, the Vols should be better running the football. But the flip side is the defense's struggle stopping that dimension.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Dooley said. "We played base defense, and you can see we gave up a lot of yards running the ball. We're going to have a hard time stopping anybody just lining up [and] playing seven men in the box."
Said defensive end Darrington Sentimore: "We've got to work on this run game. That's all of us. Sometimes guys want to do their own things out there, but we've just got to line up and play what the coach is calling. They're not going to lead you wrong."
Another day, another bad display of field-goal kicking for the Vols.
Michael Palardy yanked a 32-yard attempt wide right in the first half. His backup, walk-on Derrick Brodus, missed wide left from 27 yards, though he made the 27-yard three-pointer that was the difference in the game. Unsurprisingly, Dooley was disappointed in his specialists.
"Mike had a good spring, but he didn't kick as well as he's kicked for 14 days and I told him that," he said. "He reverted back a little bit and that was disappointing, but he's got all summer to correct it.
"Brodus has had a good spring, too. He hadn't kicked it as deep on kickoffs, but I think that was the first field goal he's missed all spring. I was surprised at that. He hit a good kick, he just missed it. It was on the left hash, and I think his steps were off a little bit."
Palardy ended last year poorly, and Brodus has trouble with depth on his kickoffs. UT will add a third kicker to the mix when George Bullock arrives on campus in June. The nearby West High School product earned a scholarship offer and committed to UT last summer.
"There's competition there, yeah," Dooley said. "You've got perform, especially at kicker. You can be all-conference kicker and come in the next year, and you miss a few field goals and it's hard to have a lot of patience."
Receiver Justin Hunter and linebacker Curt Maggitt were the two biggest names who didn't play on Saturday. ... Defensive backs Prentiss Waggner (shoulder) and Brent Brewer (ACL) played in red non-contact jerseys, and offensive players were called down when tagged by either player. ... Tailback Devrin Young won the spring award for surprise offensive player. ... Dooley made sure to point out nose tackle Greg Clark as another spring surprise, as the third-year sophomore went from being "a guy on the roster" to playing with the first-team defense on Saturday. ... right tackle Ja'Wuan James took home two of the Vols' spring awards.