KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defense struggled to get to the quarterback in 2011. The Vols' 16 sacks — 1.3 per game — tied them for No. 100 in the nation, and second to last in the SEC.
That’s not the production coach Derek Dooley was looking for. That’s not a number new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri will stand for. That’s why they’re trying to identify some pass-rush specialists they can utilize to help get pressure on the quarterback.
They’ve found two in defensive ends Steven Fowlkes and Corey Miller.
“They have some similarities,” Dooley said. “They can help us a lot in the substitute pass-rush packages.”
Both are somewhat unlikely candidates to end up as a pass-rushing specialist. Fowlkes was recruited as a 210-pound wide receiver who also could play some linebacker. Five years later, Fowlkes, a redshirt senior,is up to a sturdy 270 pounds and is carving a niche out on the defensive front.
“I see my role as a third-down guy,” Fowlkes said. “Coach (Sunseri) is basically wanting me in on pass situations or maybe draw-screen situations. I think it’s an important role. Coach Dooley always talks about doing your role the best way possible.”
He almost lost the opportunity to find his role in 2011 when academic struggles prevented him from playing.
“It was a bad situation. That’s life — bad things are going to happen, but I’m blessed. My teammates were behind my back, I feel like even though I sat out (of games) a lot, I still got a lot of good work in.”
Miller is also a player who has seen some position changes and some off-the-field challenges. The 260-pound defensive lineman has bounced between defensive end and tackle in his two years with the Vols. He sat out the spring with academic concerns.
He’s back in good standing, and he hopes to find a spot as a lighter, pass-rushing defensive end in the 3-4. He has no problem being used primarily on third down — he loves the mindset defenders have in that situation.
“When it’s third and long, as a defense, you know it’s time to get after somebody,” Miller said. “You have to go out there, have the right attitude, watch the ball and know what everybody else around you is doing. It’s a good time for us. We like third-down situations.”
Early return from Milligan: The Vols got a surprise Wednesday night when the buses rolled into Milligan College a day early. The Vols were scheduled to conclude their six-day camp in upper East Tennessee on Thursday morning, but Dooley called an audible at the last minute.
“I just felt like we had a great camp and it was a hard morning practice,” Dooley said. "They were pushing and there hadn’t been one negative complaint. I just felt like it was the right thing to do, they had earned it, and they probably needed it more than anything. I was just glad we were able to get the buses to come.”
It was a welcomed sight for the weary Tennessee players.
“We were like third graders on the last day of school,” linebacker Curt Maggitt said. “Everybody was jumping around and screaming.”
Injury update: Freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil (hamstring), junior receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (shoulder) and senior tight end Mychal Rivera (knee) all practiced in red, non-contact jerseys on Thursday night.
McNeil is probable for Saturday’s scrimmage, Patterson will play in a non-contact jersey and Rivera will not participate. Dooley also said redshirt senior linebacker Herman Lathers will sit. He didn’t specify an injury, but said he’s dealing with general fatigue and a few bumps and bruises.
Scrimmage No. 2 Saturday: The Vols will have their second intrasquad scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET inside Neyland Stadium. Dooley said they will only scrimmage twice this preseason because of having more veterans than they have before.
There will be a focus on situational play such as third downs, red zone opportunities and special teams. The scrimmage is closed to the media and the public.