KNOXVILLE -- It all began with a summer weightlifting session gone wrong.

That was followed up with an unexpected return trip home and helpless moments of watching his team struggle and lose without him.

Tennessee defensive back Tino Thomas spent the fall in limbo as a grayshirt, a member of the Volunteers team from a distance.

"It was real tough for me," Thomas said in a phone interview Tuesday night. "Most of the guys in my class, we were all close and everything. I was looking forward to playing with them and playing my freshman year."

That didn't happen, however, for the 6-foot, 200-pound standout from Melrose High School in Memphis. Thomas was the last of the Vols' 2011 signees to arrive in Knoxville in July. UT could bring in only 26 players, but the Vols signed 28 and all but one (safety Eddrick Loften) showed up on campus.

While he was doing a clean and jerk during a summer workout session, Thomas lifted the weights over his head and his shoulder popped out of place. The injury required surgery and put his freshman year in jeopardy.

Geraldo Orta, another defensive back signee, was coming off two shoulder surgeries since his high school season ended. With one more player on campus than they could have, the Vols had to grayshirt either Thomas or Orta. If a player is grayshirted, he cannot attend the school with which he signed or be a part of the team in any way.

The Vols ultimately decided on Thomas, who will show up in January and start his eligibility clock. Essentially he'll be a 2012 signee who's enrolled early.

"He had a major surgery on his shoulder, and there's no way he was going to help us this year," UT coach Derek Dooley said after practice on Aug. 18. "There's no sense in burning a year of eligibility. This is exactly the positive of grayshirting that nobody wants to talk about. He can go home, rehab it and come in midyear, and I think that's a real positive thing."

Thomas had his doubts at first, most because he didn't know what the term even meant.

"Just going back to Memphis, I mean, I didn't really want to go, but they sat me down and told me what was going on about the grayshirt and everything," Thomas said. "I had to settle down like, 'All right, all right, I'll just get ready to come back up.' That's basically how I felt.

"At first I thought I was going to be redshirted because of my injury. I didn't really know about a grayshirt [because] I had never heard of it. I was unaware of it because I didn't really know what it was. My dad had to tell me to simmer down."

Thomas returned to Memphis, rehabbed his injury and kept in touch with UT defensive backs coach Terry Joseph. The Vols struggled in the secondary after safety Janzen Jackson's dismissal in late August. Five players made starts at cornerback, where UT struggled to win one-on-one battles.

"It was real tough [to watch]," Thomas said. "It got to the point that I was so mad the games we ended up losing because I couldn't contribute to the team. That was real tough."

All the difficulty of having to watch his team from more than 400 miles away is nearly over, though. Thomas said he will report to Knoxville the first weekend in January and finally begin his career with the Vols.

UT hopes his speed can provide an important upgrade to a secondary that needs it.

"I'm very eager," Thomas said. "Coach Joseph called me and [director of football operations] Scott Altizer told me the days I could come up -- the eighth, ninth, 10th or 11th. I said, 'Coach, I'm coming back the eighth.' I'm trying to get there as soon as I can."

Then it can all truly begin.