KNOXVILLE -- More prominent University of Tennessee football players returned to the practice field Tuesday.
Junior tight end Luke Stocker (turf toe), sophomore cornerback Art Evans (sprained knee) and redshirt freshman middle linebacker Herman Lathers returned to varying degrees, though none are officially 100 percent healthy.
Stocker hadn't practiced since Thursday, and Lathers and Evans went down the previous week.
"It's just a little thing nagging me a little bit," Stocker said. "I got a toe sprain and a bone bruise at the same time. It's just something I'm trying to get over. I practiced through it and did all right, so I think I'm getting over it."
Turf toe, a common name for toe sprains, is a more painful injury than most probably think. It has sidelined players for months, in some cases.
"I think the degree of it tells you how painful it is," Stocker said. "Mine was pretty bad for a few days, but the soreness is starting to come out of it a little bit."
Injuries are still a factor for the Vols, though. Senior center Josh McNeil was held out Tuesday with lingering soreness in his knees, and freshman tailback Bryce Brown -- whose amateur status is under NCAA investigation, thanks to money raised for college trips as a high school sophomore -- sat out with a hip injury he sustained Monday.
"Josh got banged around a little bit," Kiffin said. "Maybe if we were playing a game today, he could have played. You go to MRI him and it's useless because there's so much damage to his knees, so I think he'll be out here by Thursday."
Senior linebacker Rico McCoy said his second day back from a knee sprain went better than Monday's debut.
"I did a little bit more (Tuesday)," McCoy said. "I did the whole practice. I felt pretty good. I can't wait to check out this film and see how I did."
Kiffin remained reluctant to admit gearing down practice intensity for much of the past week, but the Vols have clearly dialed it down, if only a small amount. They wore full pads Tuesday but didn't take ball carriers to the ground.
"You're always monitoring it, but at the same time, you've got to find out who your team is," Kiffin said. "We're not playing a game tomorrow. We wouldn't be practicing like this if we were. So we're still a ways away from a real game, so we have to continue to a point to hit and find out who we are and figure out our depth chart.
"It's a physical game, and there's no way to find out who your players are without being physical. Otherwise you go into the opener and you're playing guys and then you're finding out. We're going to find that out now. We'll be smart. We've done this for a long time, and we know when to pull back."
THAT VICTOR THOMAS?
To hear Kiffin tell it, junior defensive tackle Victor Thomas, might have finally turned a corner. Thomas worked with the first team Tuesday in banged-up senior Wes Brown's absence, and he started over talented freshman Montori Hughes in Saturday's scrimmage.
"I think he's just done a great job preparing in the offseason, working with Coach (Ed) Orgeron," Kiffin said of Thomas. "Those guys have improved so much from spring to now. It's great to see. I think they're going to be a pretty special D-line."
The 6-foot-4, 285-pound Thomas said he the past few days have been "really exciting."
"I hope I keep playing good enough to stay out there more (with the starters)," Thomas said.
Senior defensive tackle Dan Williams said he's been impressed with his part-time, first-team battery mate.
"Vic's working harder than he ever has since he's been here, and it's paying off," Williams said. "I'm happy for him to see that hard work paying off, and I think he's going to really help us this season."