KNOXVILLE -- Christian Harris has waited long enough.
After a redshirt year, the Tennessee linebacker was eyeing a role in the Volunteers' defense during spring practice when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
More than four months into his recovery, Harris believes he'll soon be back on the field.
"The rehab's coming along well," he said Saturday. "I'm supposed to maybe see a doctor soon to probably clear me for 7-on-7 stuff, but we've got to get that scheduled. I'm sprinting and stuff now, starting to do change-of-direction workouts. I'm going to be back in action pretty soon, hopefully."
Given Tennessee's lack of depth at inside linebacker, the Vols hope Harris returns sooner rather than later. Though converted fullback Channing Fugate has performed well in training camp, freshman Kenny Bynum's torn meniscus was a blow to the depth at a thin position.
Losing starters Herman Lathers or A.J. Johnson certainly would be a significant blow to Tennessee's defense.
Lathers has missed a chunk of practice and both scrimmages this month as he heals a strained quadriceps. The senior missed all of last season with a fractured ankle and battled a couple of other minor ailments during spring practice. The Vols have made sure to manage him during camp.
Coach Derek Dooley said Lathers, who's practiced in a red noncontact jersey the past couple of days, is not 100 percent, though he's been practicing.
"I can't really put a mark on how close I am," Lathers said Monday. "I felt a little better than I have in the past few days, so that's a good step. We've got a rest period coming up, so I've got to take full advantage of it and rehab, rehab, rehab till I can't rehab no more.
"I don't think I ever got back to 100 percent, but I'm a guy that's going to push himself even when I'm not at 100 percent. I'm going to work to compete and train hard. Even if I'm not 100 percent, I'm going to try to get as close as I can."
Harris was working with the second-team defense as Lathers' backup at Mike linebacker when he suffered his injury.
"It just happened," he recalled. "We were doing backs on 'backers, and I kind of overran a tackle. My knee popped once and I didn't think too much about it, and the next play when I tried to change direction, it popped three more times.
"I was excited to play, and when I got injured I was surprised because I've never had any knee problems. It was just weird that it could happen that fast. That really caught me off guard."
The first commitment of Tennessee's 2011 signing class, Harris was much less heralded than fellow linebackers Johnson and Curt Maggitt. Yet he was very productive his final two seasons at Etowah High School in Woodstock, Ga., when he racked up 235 tackles. His size gave him a clear home as an inside linebacker in coordinator Sal Sunseri's new Vols defense.
The 6-foot-1 Harris had bulked up to 250 pounds by spring practice after his redshirt season, and after dropping to 225 following his injury, he's back to 238.
"It was good to redshirt because I got to be in this program for a year, get used to it and have another year to play," Harris said. "I got to get stronger, get bigger and develop a sense for the defense."
Most ACL injuries require a five- or six-month recovery. Harris' summer rehab routine had him working for 60 or 90 minutes five days a week, and he's spent most of Tennessee's camp practices doing agility and cutting drills to the side with head trainer Jason McVeigh. Harris believes he's "ahead of schedule" and expects he'll be back at some point this season.
The Vols might really need him by that point.
"I came in pretty humble, just trying to work hard and see where that would take me," he said. "It's starting to pay off now. Hopefully I'll be able to play soon."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.