KNOXVILLE - Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter's long-awaited return to the football field went well, but it could have gone much better.
The Volunteers' star junior still was shaking his head when he was asked after Tuesday morning's practice about two drops he had during a nine-catch, 73-yard performance in Tennessee's season-opening win against North Carolina State.
"The only thing I wish I really could have [back] was those two dropped passes," he said. "I think if I had those, everything would have been good."
One drop would have gained close to 40 yards, and another on fourth down would have kept alive a Tennessee fourth-quarter drive. Quarterback Tyler Bray targeted Hunter 17 times on his 41 throws, more than twice as many as newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson (eight). Bray rued missing Hunter twice near the end zone during the third quarter; they said they were even.
Though the Vols left some points on the field, they were effective on third down (9-of-19), mostly because of Bray's arm.
"Just execution," he said. "I missed a couple I wish I had back, but we did what our goal was and [offensive coordinator Jim] Chaney's happy with it."
When asked why he was so even-keeled all the time, Bray joked, "It's because I'm from California, like you guys say."
That demeanor, head coach Derek Dooley said, helps him perform on pressure third downs.
"I just think that poise that he demonstrated all through camp and the offseason paid off in the game," Dooley said. "You never saw Tyler get frustrated or affected, like maybe you saw last season or the year before when you're young. I just think it's his level of growth, maturity, experience, and he just kept playing."
Herman Lathers isn't sure when it happened. All Tennessee's senior linebacker knew was his shoulder kept moving awkwardly. After missing all of last season with an injury, Lathers didn't want to come off the field so shortly after finally returning to it.
"It was another 'Here we go again' kind of deal, but you know, my main thing is it's never as bad as it seems," he said. "Just being through all I've been through, I felt it was as bad as it seems. I was a little nervous, but once I got back to Knoxville and got it examined, it turned out not to be as bad.
"It's something I've just got to rehab and bounce back from."
That last sentence is almost the theme of Lathers' career as a Vol. The player who beat cancer at age 15, had his spleen removed as a sophomore and badly fractured his ankle last summer is now battling a sprain of the AC joint in his right shoulder. He didn't practice Tuesday and remains probable for the Vols' home date with Georgia State.
Lathers is determined he'll return to practice today and play Saturday.
"No time for rest, especially when you're a leader of this team, leader of this defense and guys are depending on you and looking to you for moral support," he said. "When you're not out there, some guys, especially the young guys, tend to get down and feel sorry for themselves. When they see that I'm pushing myself to get through injuries, then it helps them push through."
If Lathers can't play, much of his communication responsibilities will go to A.J. Johnson, and Dontavis Sapp will fill in at his vacated inside linebacker spot. Though he admittedly didn't play up to his own standards in the opener, Johnson said he's feeling more comfortable with the quarterback-of-the-defense role. The Vols trained him for it during the preseason when Lathers' strained quadriceps kept him out.
Lathers said he's "real comfortable" Johnson and Sapp can handle things in case of his absence.
"They study a lot," he said. "I'm going to study a lot with them all week, and if it comes that I'm not able to go, then I have 100 percent trust in those guys to go out and execute."
Left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson talked about making his first collegiate start for nearly eight months, and naturally all the buildup led to the sophomore starting too soon. Richardson was penalized for a false start before the Volunteers' first play. He was flagged again later in the game for a false start.
Richardson said Tuesday it was a lesson that he can't let mistakes bother him. The rest of his first start went more smoothly. Tailback Marlin Lane's 42-yard run went left, behind Richardson and left guard Dallas Thomas, and Tennessee's run game improved as the game wore on. The Vols finished with 191 yards, more than they had in all but one game in 2011.
"He jumped offsides the first play, which we had bet that he would," Dooley quipped. "Nobody bet on Tiny not jumping offsides. We tried to call a play that's just the simplest: Let him flat-back somebody. It didn't matter.
"He was juiced up. He made a lot of first-game mistakes. He made a ton of them. He's going to be a good player, but he made a lot of mistakes. He's going to get better."
Curt Maggitt didn't practice Tuesday, and though Dooley said he was "all right," the sophomore linebacker was seen outside Tennessee's football complex with a protective boot on his right foot. ... Freshman receiver Alton "Pig" Howard (foot) is starting to practice more, but Dooley said he's "not there." ... The Vols are beginning to integrate inside linebacker Christian Harris (knee) in hopes that the redshirt freshman can return to action in the next two weeks.