Tennessee LB Lathers puts pain behind him

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.