KNOXVILLE -- Three prominent players returned to Tennessee football Volunteers practice Thursday afternoon.
And first-year coach Lane Kiffin said senior center Josh McNeil (knees), senior guard Vladimir Richard (Achilles') and junior wide receiver Gerald Jones (ankle) could all play Saturday against UCLA.
McNeil's career was feared to be finished after his latest knee injury took him off the practice field two weeks ago. Jones limped off the scrimmage field three weeks ago. Richard started last Saturday against Western Kentucky but left after just two possessions.
"Surprisingly, Josh came out today and was able to practice," Kiffin said. "We have him some reps, and he could possibly even play Saturday.
"It was a surprise to see him back this fast from the scope. He was not supposed to be back until at least probably two weeks from now, and so credit on his part for working so hard and rehabbing and getting back. He'll be able to play for us Saturday, if needed."
Players aren't allowed to speak with reporters after Wednesday during a game week, but McNeil has told people all over campus this week that he hopes to get in against UCLA.
Kiffin anticipated Richard would play Saturday but only would "like to think" Jones will.
Starting cornerback Marsalous Johnson sat out practice and wore a walking boot after strolling into the complex Thursday complaining about pain in his foot.
"Marsalous Johnson, we're going to have to monitor," Kiffin said. "He came in with a foot issue today, and it was the first time it had happened, so I would think he'll be fine."
Kiffin said the staff hadn't decided as of Thursday night whether junior Brent Vinson or sophomore Anthony Anderson would start, if necessary.
"Anthony's been healthier longer and done a really good job this camp, but whoever we put in there, we feel good about," he said.
Vols defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin laughed at son Lane's Tuesday assertion that the father's matchup with UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow was one of "legends." Lane said Monte was the best defensive coordinator in football history and Chow was the best offensive coordinator in college history.
"I don't know where Lane came up with that," Monte said. "(Chow)'s a legend. ... I'm just a guy coaching some ball. He's really a good coach, but Lane knows him more than I do.
"But Norm's good. He's really good. If he missed the flight here or something, that wouldn't hurt my feelings. But I doubt that will happen."
Lane said he hasn't noticed a difference this week in his father's demeanor.
"Not at all," Lane said. "He's always nonstop. He's a dinosaur. They don't make them like that anymore. The guy's here until 2 o'clock in the morning no matter who we're playing. He was last week, he is this week and he will be next week.
"We keep waiting for him to get tired, and he doesn't. I don't know how he does it."
Said Monte: "I was just jazzed up last week for Western Kentucky. They all count. It doesn't matter who you're playing, or who the coordinators are."
Right place, wrong uni
Damien Thigpen fully expected to play football in Neyland Stadium this season, but he figured he'd play there more than once, and as a defensive back in UT orange.
Thigpen, a highly sought recruit from Virginia, was a firm commitment to former UT coach Phillip Fulmer but will wear UCLA blue and play tailback as well as special teams Saturday in Neyland. Lane Kiffin told him last winter that he didn't necessarily fit in the new staff's plans.
"I don't know that we ever finalized that, figuring out where he would have played here," Kiffin said Thursday. "He is a great kid from a great family, and we wish him the best of luck. He played a few snaps last week, and I'm sure he'll be really good there."
Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel told the Los Angeles Daily News earlier this week that he happily swept in to steal Thigpen.
"I don't know what the story is there," Neuheisel told the Daily News. "(Tennessee has) one side of it, Damien has another side of it. I just know we're glad he's here. At the end of the day, everybody needs to go where they're wanted and where they'll flourish. I can guarantee you that Damien Thigpen will flourish here."
Pope has hope
UT sophomore Cody Pope, a San Diego native, hopes his ability to play multiple positions up front will help him get in the game Saturday.
Pope, who was the Vols' first-team right tackle in spring practice and had dabbled at center and tight end earlier in his career, is listed second on the left guard depth chart.
Senior Cory Sullins, a former walk-on, is the primary backup at both guard spots, but Pope figures to play more if Richard's sore Achilles' tendon forces him off the field.
"I think (playing several positions) really helped me pick things up, especially looking at defenses and what-not," said Pope, a 6-6, 288-pound vegetarian who dresses and speaks like a surfer. "I think it will get me on the field quicker, too."
Lane Kiffin, for a second consecutive week, said the team responded well Thursday after a poor Wednesday practice.
"Practice, I thought, was pretty clean, pretty crisp," he said. "I thought the guys did a good job in preparation, but we've got a long ways to go until 4 o'clock (Saturday)."