NCAA FB

Tennessee LB Lathers puts pain behind him

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

Forgive Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers if he doesn't fret too much over a strained quadriceps muscle that has limited him for much of the preseason.

Lathers already has overcome far greater maladies.

The fifth-year senior spent much of his youth battling bone cancer. He fought that disease with the same tenacity he now uses to fight off blockers. Just as he was developing into one of Tennessee's most reliable defenders, Lathers fractured his left ankle and missed the entire 2011 season.

Now that Lathers finally has a chance to return, he doesn't plan to let an aching quad keep him off the field. Although the injury has limited him during the preseason, Lathers expects to be ready Friday when the Volunteers open their season against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome.

''I'm real eager,'' Lathers said. ''I'll have a whole lot of jitters. I've just got to calm myself down before the game. I know I've been here before, been in a big game before. I just have to calm myself down and play ball.''

Lathers' teammates are equally antsy to see him back in action. His return should make linebacker a position of strength for Tennessee's defense.

While Lathers sat out last season, linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt cracked the starting lineup as freshmen. They enter their sophomore seasons as the Volunteers' top two returning tacklers. New Vols defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has said Maggitt and Johnson ''might be the finest young linebackers that I have ever coached.''

Lathers' comeback ought to aid their development.

''It's fair to say if Herman is healthy, that is one of our strengths,'' Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. ''That is the strength of our defense because Curt, Herman and A.J. have all proven that they can play good, winning football in this league. No other position has that, in fact, on the whole team. Nobody else has gone 12 games and proven they can be good. That's a strength, but we need to keep them healthy because depth is a real concern.''

Staying healthy has been a major issue for Lathers.

Lathers said he was about 10 years old when he got diagnosed with cancer. He spent five years receiving treatment and wondering if he'd ever get to play the game he loved.

''When I was going through it, I didn't think it was a possibility I'd ever play any sports,'' Lathers said. ''Once I got free of it and actually started playing sports, it was a dream come true.''

Lathers' physical problems have continued at Tennessee.

He had his spleen removed. He underwent shoulder surgery. Then came the ankle injury.

''It's helped me realize that football's a game of injuries,'' Lathers said. ''You're going to get injured. You can't let one injury slow you down and let one injury change your whole mood about playing football. It helped me a lot, helped me cope with a lot of things. Now I'm able to just help inspire my teammates who are going through injuries.''

When he's been healthy, Lathers has made a difference. Lathers moved into the starting lineup midway through his redshirt freshman season in 2009 and ranked second on the team with 75 tackles in 2010.

Lathers provides experience to a defense that remains relatively young. Lathers is the only projected senior starter in Tennessee's front seven.

''His maturity is probably the most important thing,'' Sunseri said. ''He is a guy who is very smart and very sharp, so his leadership skills are very important. He is going to get people lined up and he is going to be able to make plays.''

Lathers' leadership could prove essential in helping Tennessee make the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 alignment under Sunseri, who spent the last three years coaching Alabama's linebackers. Lathers' teammates marvel at the hours he spends studying film.

''If any of the linebackers have questions, you can ask Herm,'' junior linebacker Channing Fugate said. ''He will help you with anything. He really is smooth. He knows the playbook in and out, and he knows a lot, so we look to him if we have a question on the field.''

Lathers savors the opportunity to answer those questions on the field instead of on the sideline.

Tagged: Tennessee, Herman Lathers, A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt

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