Vols not surprised by Cameron Sutton's early return

Cameron Sutton (23) practices catching punts. The Ohio University Bobcats visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in a non-conference NCAA football game on Saturday September 17, 2016.

KNOXVILLE - When Cameron Sutton gingerly walked off the Neyland Stadium field during the first half of Tennessee's win against Ohio back in September, the fear was it would be the last sight of him wearing No. 23 for the Volunteers.

The All-SEC cornerback broke a bone in his ankle, and it would have been easy for him to turn his focus to preparing for the NFL draft, which he considered entering after his junior season.

Instead, Sutton ensured his senior season at Tennessee wouldn't end there, returned earlier than expected and will play in his home finale against Missouri on Saturday.

"Whenever I texted Cam or called him after that happened," fellow senior corner Malik Foreman said, "he was like, 'Bro, I'm going to be back. I don't know how, but some way I'm going to be back.'

"He was in the training room from when he could go in to when he had to leave. I never doubted Cam one bit. I knew he'd be back out there with us."

Sutton's presence in uniform was a welcome sight for Tennessee, and multiple players said after the game having two captains back in the lineup - running back Alvin Kamara came back after a two-game absence due to a knee injury - gave the Vols a boost against Kentucky.

Sutton made three tackles and broke up two third-down passes against the Wildcats.

"I was excited," defensive end LaTroy Lewis said after the game. "I texted Cam Thursday night and I was like, 'I'm excited to see you play.' I told him before the game, 'They're going to throw the ball at some point and I hope they throw it your way.' He was like, 'You already know what's going to happen.'

"Having Cam out there from a playing standpoint and also a leadership standpoint, that's uplifting for our secondary and for our defense and our team as a whole."

Understandably, Sutton was rusty. He was in coverage on Jeff Badet's reception on third down and two plays later missed a tackle in the backfield on Benny Snell Jr.'s 27-yard run on Kentucky's first-quarter field-goal drive. In the third quarter, Blake Bone hauled in a 37-yard pass along the sideline with Sutton trailing in coverage.

Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. similarly showed rust in his return from a long injury layoff at South Carolina a few weeks ago.

"He was pretty good, man," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said of Sutton. "I'd say the same thing. We talk about setting the edge: I thought there were a couple times he needs to be better and more involved in the run piece.

"The one play that was a reviewed play where they turned an incompletion into a completion down the field, it's not that he cut a guy loose, but he was in (cover)-two man and didn't finish the play appropriately. That's the play T.K. (Todd Kellly Jr.) got hurt on. He did have two pass break-ups, and it was great to see him back out there.

"We're 1-0 with him back in the lineup, and he'll have a real challenge ahead of him this week against Missouri."

The 3-7 Tigers are second in the SEC in passing behind quarterback Drew Lock (281.1 yards per game, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions) and wide receiver J'Mon Moore, who's second in the league with 743 yards and eight touchdown catches.

Sutton's optimistic target date to return was this week, but he worked his way into being ready to go one week sooner.

"I'm not surprised on anything Cam Sutton does, to be honest with you," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "He's so consistent day in, day out. He may have been hearing that, but we actually heard two games earlier. He was talking about, 'Coach, I'm going to be back for the Tennessee Tech game.' I'm looking at him like what are you talking about.

"He was such ahead of his schedule with rehab and doing all the extra little things, so I'm not surprised that he was back, to be honest. To see him be productive early on in the ballgame was really good for him and his confidence. He played the entire ballgame, and obviously we had no intentions of doing that, but the circumstances were what they were.

"He did a nice job. Obviously looking forward to this week, it's a team that throws the ball a lot more, so we'll be challenged, because they have some really great receivers and a great quarterback. It was good to get him last week and get a game under his belt coming off the injury."

Sutton surely will enjoy playing his final home game at Tennessee instead of watching it in street clothes.

"Cam's a huge competitor," Foreman said. "Just his work ethic, his preparation and everything he does as a football player, he's a great guy. We came in together and we're leaving together, and I couldn't be more happy about that."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.