Tennessee's LaTroy Lewis (4) kisses the trophy after the TaxSlayer Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa on Jan. 2, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. Tennessee won 45-28.

KNOXVILLE -- Playing behind two of the most disruptive players in the Southeastern Conference put playing time at a premium last season for LaTroy Lewis.

It meant the Tennessee defensive end had to make the most of the playing time he did get.

Lewis made just eight tackles last season playing behind Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt and Corey Vereen, but five of those were for loss, the fifth-highest mark overall and third-highest among defensive linemen for the Volunteers in 2014.

"I tried to take advantage of every opportunity I got, and that's the goal every time you go in the game," the 6-foot-4, 257-pound Lewis said following Tuesday's practice. "I just tried to seize the moment every time. It's just a competition every day, every week, every game, and that's how we see it."

The mindset this spring practice hasn't changed for Lewis, but his surroundings have.

Barnett and Maggitt are on the shelf while recuperating from offseason shoulder surgeries, and Vereen will be out for the spring after having his knee scoped.

It makes Lewis the most productive returning player available at defensive end for the Vols.

"Some players seem to be around the ball, some players seem to produce, and he's one of those guys," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said after Thursday's practice. "We'd like to see his role expand, absolutely.

"He's always got a great attitude, and I think he's definitely going to get some more opportunities, and so what he does with it is real key."

Lewis realizes the shorthanded situation can benefit him this spring as he tries to build off a strong finish to last season. His role increased when he started at Vanderbilt and played extensively in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Lewis had a key fourth-down stop in the first quarter of the rout of Iowa.

"I'm just trying to make the most of it," he said. "Everything I can get out of it, I'm getting out of it. When those guys get back, I can't wait, because I want to be able to compete against them."

The rising redshirt junior is about to enter his fourth year in the program. Lewis signed with Tennessee and former coach Derek Dooley in 2012 out of Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio. He was poised for playing time as a freshman, but he missed the year after hurting his knee while playing pickup basketball.

Lewis played in just six games and had a limited role last season, but he said he feels like a veteran and knows this spring, with so many other defensive linemen out recovering from surgeries, is an opportunity he can't pass up.

"It's a different dynamic not having the whole entourage out there," Lewis said, "but at the same time, Coach Strip, Coach Walt (defensive graduate assistant Walter Stewart), they still have the same high standard for everyone.

"It's the same coaching. It's the same standard that, hey, this is what we do, and we're going to keep doing it and we're not going to let go of what we expect."

Leaner and stronger, Lewis is hopeful he can strengthen a spot where the Vols already are pretty strong when fully healthy.

"He's very intelligent," Stripling said. "He right now has accepted the leadership role because he's one of the older players in the group that's on the field, and he's embraced that role. Monday in the meeting, Coach (Butch Jones) said, 'Who's going to lead the D-line?' and LaTroy said, 'LaTroy Lewis is.' He's embracing that role and giving us some leadership.

"We just need him to keep working and keep getting the productivity out of him."

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