Rae Sykes played the patient newcomer in 2009. Now, he's ready to live up to his nickname.
Sykes, who some teammates call "Big Play" Rae, didn't make any plays last year - not even a single tackle.
No matter. Sykes, a former Alcoa High School star, said he was just easing into the flow after transferring from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
"I didn't really sweat it too much because I was a juco transfer and up there in Kansas I didn't play," Sykes said. "I was just getting back into it. But I felt like I could have played."
Sykes, a junior, was practicing at defensive end last season. He's now at defensive tackle because of the Vols' need at that position.
Sykes said his quick hands have helped him make the transition, but he's still struggling with the near-constant double teams he's facing inside.
Yet, Sykes said his forte hasn't changed.
"Pass rushing," he said. "That's my specialty. It's been that since I've been in high school and it will be until I'm finished in football."
That consistent theme in his game may prove valuable if he's moved back to end, which according to defensive line coach Chuck Smith is still a real possibility.
"I give Rae a lot of credit," Smith said. "Rae Sykes is a defensive end. He got thrust into having to help us at defensive tackle.
"Not to say that one day he might not be an end again, but right now he has an opportunity to help us at tackle. He's a guy that's working really hard. When you go from positions it's really different, especially at this level. He's really focused and he's putting in the work I think it takes to help us on the defensive line."
Sykes seems to be growing into the role, literally. He's up to 270 pounds and hopes to weigh 285 by this fall.
Sykes is the lone remaining scholarship player on UT's roster from Blount County. Others have steadily fallen by the wayside.
Former Maryville stars Aaron Douglas and Tyler Maples decided to transfer and former Alcoa standout Brandon Warren was dismissed last fall.
Sykes said playing close to home has its challenges.
"I would say it can go either way because everywhere I go (in Knoxville) I'm from 15 minutes down the road and people always ask me when I'm going to get on the field," Sykes said. "I always just tell them my time will come. You can't rush it. It will come sooner or later."
If Sykes can continue to improve and eventually establish himself at defensive tackle, he could prove to be a valuable contributor for the Vols, who need to build depth up front. UT lost its top two tackles from last season: Dan Williams and Wes Brown.
To adequately replace those two, "Big Play" Rae will finally need to live up to his nickname.