KNOXVILLE -- If Bryce Brown wasn't lathered up and ready for Southeastern Conference football, Herman Lathers helped the cause Thursday.
Lathers, a promising redshirt freshman linebacker, jarred the ball loose from the highly touted freshman tailback with a big hit over the middle and pounced on it to cap one of the day's most exciting plays.
"When I was a young guy and first came in, it was like everybody was out to get you," Lathers said. "Just welcome you to SEC ball, and everybody was out to get you."
So was Lathers out to proving that point Thursday? When asked about his big hit on Brown, the Louisiana native smiled and said, "Welcome to SEC ball."
Lathers made several other solid plays Thursday, continuing his intriguing battle with former walk-on Nick Reveiz for the middle linebacker starting spot.
"He had a good day today," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said of Lathers. "He made some plays today. That's what we're looking for ... guys making plays at linebacker."
The Volunteers, typically stocked with future NFL linebackers for much of the past two decades, are uncharacteristically inexperienced at those spots this season. All-SEC weaksider Rico McCoy is the only known commodity at any of the three positions.
"The hardest thing in our system right now is we really don't have a lot of experience at linebacker," Kiffin said. "There's a difference between playing special teams and playing (defense) in the scheme."
"We're not very big, and we're not very experienced. We can get by with small linebackers, but it would be good if they had some experience. Every rep they get is big. Every rep we get, you can't get that one back. You better stay focused, and you better concentrate in whatever we do ... because before long, within a month, we'll be lining up (in a game)."
Lathers, who might have played last season as a true freshman if not for tonsil surgery, hopes to give the Vols a big boost they desperately need.
"The more you know the more the defense, the more you can let it go and just play," Lathers said. "You don't want to be out there thinking too much. You want to be hitting people and playing football."
Full at fullback
Sophomore fullback Austin Johnson had a solid day. His biggest highlight was a long, wheel-route touchdown catch from Jonathan Crompton in 11-on-11, but coaches are just as pleased with his overall consistency.
Head coach Lane Kiffin said there's been "good competition" between Johnson and fellow fullbacks Ben Bartholomew and Chattanooga's Kevin Cooper. He said they would be involved in the offense "if they continue to make plays like they today. I thought Austin had a really big day, played extremely well."
Lane Kiffin said the quarterbacks were "much better" Thursday after a disappointing Wednesday. He also said the first-team offensive line is "progressing really well," though the first true test will come in full pads this weekend.
Freshman cornerback Mike Edwards got through the NCAA Clearinghouse and should be eligible to practice and play this season, according to several sources in the program, but the Vols are still waiting to hear freshman defensive tackle Marlon Walls' fate. Edwards, unlike Walls, was allowed to practice before hearing a final decision.
Lane Kiffin said McCoy "really played hard early" Thursday (with) "a couple of huge hits."