GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: Running back Marlin Lane #4 of the Tennessee Volunteers scores a touchdown during a game against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
We're taking a look at the top seven offensive and defensive players on Tennessee's roster who made a leap this spring. Here are the four installments we've gone through so far.
Hope you guys enjoyed the series. On to No. 1...
OFFENSE -- MARLIN LANE SO. RUNNING BACK
There was a time early this spring when Lane was a frustrating presence on the practice field, much like he was during a freshman season that started with a sizzle and ended with a fizzle.
He averaged a single yard per carry during that first scrimmage, and Rajion Neal looked like he was going to run away with the starting running back spot, no matter that Lane looked like he had the potential to be the more all-around runner.
Somewhere between that first scrimmage and the Orange & White game, a fire was lit. All of a sudden Lane got better and better. He rebounded with 71 yards in the Vols' second scrimmage, and with more than 30,000 watching the spring finale in Neyland Stadium, the sophomore burst out for 226 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns for the victorious Orange team. His game started with a 43-yard kickoff return and he caught a 16-yard pass and capped the drive with a 20-yard touchdown run.
He was facing a bunch of UT second-teamers on defense, but the 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore continued to make progress throughout the spring and also was successful in other settings against first-teamers. While the Vols don't have any definite go-to running backs, Lane's emergence along with Neal and change-of-pace Devrin Young gives UT an opportunity to have three stellar runners who can all do different things. With Davante Bourque and Co. coming in the fall, a massive weakness last season could become a strength.
Lane has the potential to be great. He was recruited by many of the top programs in the country, and he wound up with UT after an incident with authorities that was later minimized. He suffered a devastating knee injury in high school and maybe wasn't completely healed last year as he entered his first full season back. Though he was a scoring machine early, he couldn't generate any offense later in the season, and he struggled with his vision finding holes. Still, Lane is big, he is fast enough and he can catch passes out of the backfield, and he showed all that in the spring game. Hopefully, it's just the first sign of him breaking out. For that, he earns my most surprising spring award for his continual improvement.
DEFENSE -- STEVEN FOWLKES RS SR. DEFENSIVE END
That would have been the question many asked heading into this spring. Some of you are probably still sifting through the roster trying to find out how a guy like Fowlkes slipped through the cracks his entire career and is now somebody who is vying for meaningful snaps as a fifth-year senior. I am, too.
But there he was this spring, relishing the new 3-4 scheme and registering sacks left and right coming off the edge as a 6-foot-5, 260-pound difference-making defensive end.
Last year, Fowlkes missed most of the season due to academics and didn't play a single snap. Still, former defensive line coach Lance Thompson noted one time that he wished Fowlkes would have been eligible because he could help. We saw why this spring. He began his UT career as a wide receiver and has battled to find a spot in the depth chart his entire career.
Though he only had three tackles and one quarterback hurry in the spring finale, Fowlkes will certainly have more than four career tackles in seven career games when this season is over. He was UT's top pass rusher in the spring and was named the Andy Spiva Award for biggest defensive surprise of the spring. UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri believes Fowlkes could emerge as an NFL prospect.
Said Darrington Sentimore to GoVols247 this spring: "Steve Fowlkes can really rush the passer. I’ve been around a lot of guys — guys like Courtney Upshaw and them — that can really rush the passer. I think Steven Fowlkes can really rush the passer and get after it just like those guys. He’s got to work on his (ability to stop the) run game, like all of us do, but he can be a very good pass rusher on third down, at least."
It seemed Fowlkes had sacks in all UT's scrimmages. Daily, he was the best defensive player on the field. If he can gain around 10 more pounds and continue to learn the playbook, he has the potential to really help the Vols this year and be a great story.