Nearly five months since he broke his ankle and for the first time since the Music City Bowl last season, Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers strapped on the pads and practiced with the Vols.
Lathers, a redshirt junior who wore a green, non-contact jersey, won't play Saturday (TV: FSTN, 7 p.m.) against Middle Tennessee State and his status for the remainder of the season remains a "day by day" ordeal, but Tuesday's activity was considered a step in the right direction.
"I wouldn't say he's full blow ready to go but it was good to see him get his pads on and take a couple of hits," coach Derek Dooley said. "We're just kind of monitoring day by day. He's not close to 100 percent."
Lathers, who will be made available to reporters today, was second on the Vols with 75 tackles last season. He sat out all of spring practice because of offseason shoulder surgery and was close to getting back to full strength when he suffered what many players described as a "nasty" fracture to his left ankle.
"I told him he needs to stop collecting checks on the sidelines and go do some work," defensive tackle Malik Jackson joked. "I'm glad he's back out here working."
On Second Thought: On Monday, senior running back Tauren Poole said the Vols' running game was dramatically simplified with freshman running back Justin Worley at quarterback. It was so rudimentary, he said, that UT ran the same two running plays on its way to 38 rushing yards in last Saturday's 14-3 loss to South Carolina.
On Tuesday, Dooley completely disputed Poole's analysis.
"It might have looked like that but it's not even close to accurate," Dooley said. "That might be why we didn't run the ball if we thought we only had two running plays.
"We go in with probably more running plays than we should have, in fact. If we err on anything, it's probably too much. We'll keep searching for ways to run the ball and we regroup as coaches, regroup as players and figure out what we need to do down the stretch and that's what we're going to do."
UT ranks 119th out of 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 82.63 rushing yards per game. In SEC games, that total drops to 41.6.
"My experience has always been that it's not some play that's going to change," Dooley said. "It's executing the plays you have."
Two-back Attack?: Dooley was asked if he planned to use both Worley and senior backup Matt Simms on Saturday.
He didn't have a specific answer.
"I'm planning on doing whatever we got to do to win the football game," Dooley said. "Justin's going to start and I hope he plays well and we expect him to play well. If we're not getting anything done and the situation dictates we got to make a change, it's no different than any quarterback.
"Got to do what we can to win the game, that's what matters."
Back in Action: After spending all of last week in a green, non-contact jersey before missing the South Carolina game, linebacker Curt Maggitt was at full strength Tuesday.
Wide receiver Naz Oliver, who is out for the season with a broken wrist, put on pads and ran routes for the first time since his September surgery.
End Game: Jackson came to UT as a defensive end and played there throughout the first half of last season.
Now a full-time defensive tackle, Jackson has periodically returned to his old spot on the field to help the Vols present an occasional change of pace.
Jackson, who leads the Vols with 6.5 tackles for loss, picked up his second sack of the season from that spot on the line, easily blowing by South Carolina right tackle Cody Gibson to pounce on Connor Shaw.
"Coach (Lance) Thompson just decided to put me on the (end) a little bit more, just to get some fast rushers off the edge," Jackson said. "I've been out here practicing with Dallas (Thomas) and Ja'Wuan (James) and it's been working pretty good in the games."
Jackson said there are positives and negatives to each position on the defensive line. At tackle, he deals with constant double teams and is frequently matched up against bigger players, but is closer to the quarterback. At end, he only has to deal with one tackle and maybe a running back, but has a much longer route to a sack.
"It's iffy, you know," he said. "You've just got to be good at both."