KNOXVILLE -- Herman Lathers kept hoping for a return, but his left ankle had other ideas.
Once the brutal injury last June that required surgery to insert 11 screws wiped out the Tennessee linebacker's 2011 season, Lathers focused on Monday's start of spring practice as a checkpoint in making a full return to the field.
"Sitting out the whole year was tough," the fifth-year senior said after Monday's session, "but I put it in my mind that I was coming into spring to work and to try to get my ankle back to as normal as I can get it.
"I'd say it's about 85 or 90 percent, but I'm able to do everything so it's good to go."
The 6-foot, 225-pound Louisiana native started 12 games and finished second on the team in tackles in 2010. His original plan after his injury was to return by October, but he didn't make it back to the practice field until November as his rehab went slower than he'd hoped. Even now, Lathers admitted, it's sometimes difficult to plant and push off his left foot.
"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.
"Until we get him 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 tried to manage his absence the right way. Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson praised his assistance during their freshman seasons as starting linebackers. With Lathers working with him at the middle linebacker spot in new coordinator Sal Sunseri's 3-4 defense, Maggitt can lean on Lathers some more.
"He's a big leader," Maggitt said. "Even last year, not playing he was still a leader and somebody everybody looked up to. This offseason, every time I've seen him he's always happy and always working hard. He's just a fun person to be around and to learn from."
Lathers played middle linebacker as a redshirt freshman in 2009 after Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier were lost for the season. Lathers started five games and earned a selection to the Freshman All-SEC team that year.
"I've been through a lot of defenses," he said. "[Learning a new system] came easy and natural to me. I'm able to help a lot of the other guys and translate some stuff that is similar from last year."
After flourishing at outside linebacker as a freshman, Maggitt admitted he was a little surprised to learn he'd move inside for Sunseri. The 6-foot-3, 227-pounder was third on the team in tackles and made Freshman All-SEC. He even filled a role as a pass-rushing defensive end early last season before becoming too valuable at linebacker.
"I'm down for whatever," Maggitt said.
With Johnson taking over one middle spot and Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon in the important Jack position, Maggitt's move might have come out of necessity with the Vols short on big linebackers. The long-armed Florida native, who will be limited some this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery in December, sees positives in his new spot.
"Last year I didn't have a good understanding of the defense," he said. "I pretty much understood my position, but now it'll be me learning the whole defense pretty much. In nickel I'm still going to play in space. We'll just see how it goes."
Dooley said the opening practice was "sloppy" from a standpoint of "knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, knowing why it's important to do it that way and going out there and doing it the right way." ... The first-team offensive line during the open period of Monday's practice was (left to right) Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, Dallas Thomas, Alex Bullard, James Stone and Ja'Wuan James. Thomas, a senior, slid over a spot to make room for the sophomore Richardson, who very well could UT's best lineman. Stone takes over for Zach Fulton, who's temporarily out with a foot injury. ... Quarterback Tyler Bray said he was up to 217 pounds. ... Defensive end Jordan Williams was not on the field during the open portion of practice.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.