Tino Thomas was lifting weights with his new teammates in July, less than three weeks after he officially enrolled for the first college classes of his Tennessee career, when something popped in his left shoulder.
Within a month, Thomas, his arm in a sling after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum, was back with his family in Memphis. He remained there all throughout the fall and is still there now, counting down the days until he returns to UT in January for the spring semester and spring football.
"I'm just so excited to get back," Thomas said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I'm just excited to get back with my teammates and everything."
Thomas, who played at Melrose High School as a do-everything athlete, suffered the injury during a repetition of clean and jerks, a two-part maneuver in which the lifter raises the bar from the ground to shoulder level, holds it there for a few seconds and then lifts it above his head. Something went immediately wrong on the way up, and Thomas knew it.
"I was like 'Oh, man,' " he recalled. "I was like 'Something is wrong with my shoulder. What a bad time for it to pop out of place.' "
The incident came one week before fellow freshman Devrin Young fractured his collar bone while lifting weights, but the impact of his accident lingered much longer.
The timing, as Thomas said, wasn't great, and that's why he wound up being the odd man out in UT's 2011 signing class.
With the ability to put 26 on scholarship, UT signed 28 in 2011, leaving wiggle room for the inevitable attrition that typically plagues incoming freshman classes because of grades and other qualifying issues. Eddrick Loften failed to qualify for a second time, leaving just one player exposed to the possibility of grayshirting, a practice that forces a player to withdraw from the program entirely until the following season.
For a time, it appeared that player would be defensive back Geraldo Orta, who underwent shoulder
surgery last December. Thomas' injury, though, changed things.
Through the first two weeks of preseason camp, it became clear that Orta, who was months ahead of Thomas in his rehabilitation but still was not able to play in 2011, would be able to get more out of being with the team than Thomas, who expects to play at cornerback in 2012.
"I didn't even know what a grayshirt was," Thomas said. "I didn't even know there was a grayshirt. They had to sit me down and explain the transition and everything.
"It was real tough. Real tough."
Thomas said his family didn't initially understand the situation, either, but they welcomed him back with open arms.
UT, he said, has been similarly receptive in the months and days leading up to his return. Even though former wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who was Thomas' lead recruiter, is no longer with the program, Thomas said he's had plenty of conversations with his future position coach, Terry Joseph.
"Everything was pretty good communication-wise," Thomas said. "Most people think the coaches won't be talking to you much because you're not there."
Thomas said his day-to-day focus has centered exclusively on his rehabilitation, which he goes through daily with Jay Phillips, a Memphis Interscholastic Athletic Association certified trainer, at nearby Sheffield High. He's recently moved on from one-handed workouts to two-handed, and has been running daily.
Thomas said he's added weight and just cleared 200 pounds.
"That's what they want me at," he said.
Because he was grayshirted, Thomas counts toward the number of players UT signs to scholarship in 2012. Not including him, UT's current group of commitments stands at 21, four short of the newly instituted limit of 25.
Thomas is one of four potential newcomers — joining commitments Daniel Gray (Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.), Kenneth Crawley (Washington, D.C.) and LaDarrell McNeil (Dallas) — for a defensive backfield that was constantly in flux throughout the 2011 season.