New pains not halting UT linebacker Herman Lathers

photo UT linebackers Herman Lathers, left, and A.J. Johnson line up for a drill before the start of a scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, April 14, 2012.

KNOXVILLE -- The large black and blue brace covering Herman Lathers' left elbow served as a fitting symbol of the past 10 months for the Tennessee linebacker.

Another month, another injury.

"I can't remember when it happened," the fifth-year senior said after the Volunteers' second spring scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon, "but I hyperextended my elbow. It went numb for a little while."

It's what Lathers said next that coach Derek Dooley hopes will wear off on the rest of the team.

"I'm the [middle] linebacker in the defense," he said. "If I pull myself out, then the defense won't run as good."

After he was out for all of last season, it's not surprising that Lathers will play through ailments to stay on the field. He was second on the team in tackles as a sophomore in 2010, but he fractured his ankle last June in colliding with a teammate during an offseason workout. The injury required surgery and the insertion of 11 screws.

Lathers battled through health issues even before he arrived on UT's campus in 2008. He was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1999 when he was 10. Five years later, though, the disease went into full remission.

A comeback attempt late last season from the ankle injury failed, so this spring has been the Louisiana native's first real on-field action in roughly a year. Through two scrimmages, all appears to be going well. Lathers made four stops and broke up a pass in last week's scrimmage and made five tackles with a pass breakup and a big hit on receiver Da'Rick Rogers on Saturday.

"Herman's doing great, man," Dooley said. "He's flying around, and he's not giving me the 'Well, I'm 80 percent, 85 percent.' We're 100 percent, and I think that's helping him get over the hump mentally.

"When you've had as many injuries as he has, the first sign of pain, it probably makes you a little nervous. He's working through it, and he's really playing good football for us."

Linebacker A.J. Johnson and safety Brian Randolph each made five stops Saturday as well. Safety Rod Wilks and cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Izauea Lanier paced the defense with six tackles apiece. Randolph and freshman safety Tino Thomas intercepted passes, nose tackle Greg Clark recovered a fumble and defensive end Steven Fowlkes and linebackers Willie Bohannon and Jordan Williams had sacks.

The Vols continue to work out the kinks of coordinator Sal Sunseri's new 3-4 defensive scheme.

"We need a lot of work on it," Dooley said. "Our substitution is not where it needs to be, and then part of it is a new defense. You get out here and everything's good in practice, but now the coaches are off to the side.

"It's here's the signal, and they've got to all go talk to each other, where in practice you've got a lot of coaches out there coaching. We need more of these. We'll probably do a little more of that next week in practice: Get off the field; they've got to talk."

Even when he was injured last season, Lathers was a talker. Other linebackers have said he remained a leader even from the sideline, and Dooley has noted as much this spring. Lathers said he felt a lot better on his injured ankle Saturday than he did in the first scrimmage, though that and the elbow haven't been the only two injuries with which he's been dealing.

"My main thing over the last two weeks was my groin," he said. "I strained my groin the first week of practice. Right now I'm feeling not real good, but better than I have been the past couple of months. I'm just trying to build off it and get better and get ready for the summer."

If Lathers can return to form, it'll be a big boost for a UT team that's short on quality linebackers. Curt Maggitt is limited this spring following shoulder surgery, and the position's depth took a hit when redshirt freshman Christian Harris tore an ACL last week. A healthy Lathers next to Johnson in the middle could open up options for Maggitt to play outside.

Not only would a healthy Lathers make the Vols a better team, but it also might make them a tougher team.

"Coach Sal always stresses if you're not really injured and hurt and nobody has to drag you off the field, then don't come off the field," Lathers said. "That's what I've tried to do.

"I still have little nicks and bruises. I've just got to play through those."