Herman Lathers after the first day of spring practice
Herman Lathers is wearing the right color again, the one that gives him license to hit somebody and seek out the contact he's been missing.
All he needs now are some pads.
After sitting out spring camp a year ago and all of last season after successive injuries and surgeries, the Tennessee linebacker was once again able to blend in with his defensive teammates in an orange jersey and practice without much trouble on Monday morning.
The only thing keeping Lathers from feeling all the way back was the same limitation facing all the Vols, who couldn't go full-contact as they opened spring practice with an acclimation workout in helmets only. But he's got the date circled to let out some pent-up aggression later this week.
"Today definitely wasn't enough," Lathers said. "Thursday (in full pads) will be good for me. I don't think they'll let us really hit like I want to hit, but it will be good.
"I miss the contact a lot. Every time we were doing seven-on-seven and the offense is always cheering, it just gets me mad. Especially when they catch balls and we know we can't hit them."
Lathers has been craving that kind of contact for a while now, having essentially been on the shelf since the Music City Bowl at the end of the 2010 season after having an injured shoulder worked on and following that up with a fractured ankle during a workout last summer.
The senior initially had targeted a return in the middle of last season, but he clearly wasn't ready even by November as he started easing himself back into a few drills and tried to regain the form that had made him one of UT's top tacklers two years ago.
Even now his ankle isn't completely healed, though at an estimated "85 or 90 percent" Lathers was still able to get to work at the middle linebacker spot in the new 3-4 defense the Vols are installing.
"It's great to see him," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "Of course, he's got a lot of leadership, he's got experience, he's a veteran.
"I just hope he's able to maintain that. But until we get out there and he goes through a number of practices hitting, we really won't know because the physical toll that your body takes is going to be the key. We have to try to manage him the right way."
Lathers is well versed in that sort of management by now, particularly as he, Dooley and the training staff weighed the possible pros and cons of trying to get him back on the field late last year.
Ultimately Lathers just wasn't healthy enough to contribute, as tough as he admitted it was to sit and watch instead of helping fight for a bowl bid that would have sent the seniors "out the right way."
But his work ethic in battling through multiple rehabs and the years of experience Lathers has in the program dating back to a redshirt season in 2008 has clearly impressed a younger group of linebackers he's working with now, especially a sophomore who has never actually played a snap next to him.
And as Curt Maggitt fights for reps at the same spot in the middle with Lathers, the two seem have developed a strong relationship while bonding over videos of 3-4 defenses in the NFL and from new coordinator Sal Sunseri's last stop at Alabama.
"Working with Herm, we'd come in and watch film every day," Maggitt said. "He's a big leader. Even last year when he wasn't playing, he was still a leader and somebody that everybody looked up to. This offseason, every time I saw him he was always happy and always working hard, just a fun person to be around and learn from.
"He looks great right now, that's all I can say. He looks real good."
If all goes according to the script, Lathers can give some offensive players a close look to judge for themselves later in the week.