BY GRANT RAMEY
THE MARYVILLE DAILY TIMES
KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee was in need of a leader over the winter.
The Vols had just graduated their senior middle linebacker and on-field vocal captain in Austin Johnson after a 5-7 season. The revolving door of assistant coaches brought in a new defensive coordinator and a new scheme. Tennessee had young talent at the position, in then-freshmen Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson, but still lacked that senior leader.
Herman Lathers was just the man for the job.
"It became clear in January, once the new coaches got here," Lathers, Tennessee's redshirt senior inside linebacker, said of taking over the team. "I talked to the new coaches, they evaluated me and knew that I had a lot of playing experience and a lot of injuries.
"They never really asked me, but I told them I was ready to step up and lead this team and that's what I was going to do."
The biggest of the injuries, a fractured ankle last June, shadowed his experience after sidelining Lathers for the entire 2011 season.
He was second on the team with 81 tackles after starting all 12 games in 2010. The 6-foot, 230-pound, Baton Rouge, La. native was an SEC All-Freshman Team pick by the league's coaches in 2009 after recording 41 tackles in five starts.
Now Lathers is healthy. And he's taking over Tennessee's young, talented group of linebackers that make up new defensive coordinator Sal Suneri's 3-4 scheme.
"He's a blessing for me," said A.J. Johnson, who led all freshmen in the SEC with 80 tackles last season.
"Last year we had Austin Johnson and he was a great leader that helped us through the season as freshmen. Now we have Herman who is learning the scheme at the same time as us, but he has an upperhand on knowing where we are supposed to be. He's just a great leader who will help us be better players individually."
The installation of the 3-4 scheme began in the spring, when Lathers got back on the field with a clean bill of health to help his teammates make sense of the new defense.
"We couldn't even get lined up at first in the spring," Lathers, who called the difference between spring practice and fall training camp 'night and day' when it came to running the defense, said.
"As long as we continue to get in work, watch film, study together, we'll be good."
The defense grew on Lathers and his linebacking corp over the summer, as they began to put the pieces together.
"The start of spring was rough, new coaches, new scheme," Lather said. "Lot of guys didn't trust the stuff. But once spring got midway, a lot of guys saw that the scheme works only if you follow the scheme and do what you're supposed to do.
"As the summer went on a lot of guys trusted the scheme, got in watched extra film, go in and talk to the coaches."
While Lathers has assumed the leadership position, Maggit and A.J. Johnson's leadership qualities haven't been lost on the rest of the linebacker depth chart.
"I think (Lathers has) also got two young guys who have incredible competitive character and leadership ability," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said of Maggitt and Johnson.
"So when you have three guys in that room that set that kind of tone, it's hard for the young guys to fall asleep."
With a new role and without injury, now it's just about going out and doing it.
"I took the job to step up and lead this team," Lathers said. "And I'm going to lead this team to where we need to go."
Wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers and defensive back Eric Gordon missed practice Tuesday as they attended their final class of the summer semester ... Dooley said tight end Mychal Rivera 'tweaked' his knee and would be out around a week but the injury was "no big deal" ... The injury to Rivera at an already thin tight end position forced Joseph Ayres to move from the defensive side of the ball to working with the tight ends Tuesday. Ayres, a redshirt junior, had one-career start and 19-career tackles as a reserve defensive lineman over the last two seasons ... Freshman tailback Davante Bourque is dealing with a neck injury. "It's not really a stinger," Dooley said. "I think it's a whiplash deal."