Big game for Lathers

Saturday's game at South Carolina represents a sort of anniversary for one Tennessee Volunteer.

That would be sophomore linebacker Herman Lathers. He assumed the first-team middle linebacker job when Savion Frazier was hurt midway through last year's game with the Gamecocks, and that break proved to be a springboard for a big finish in 2009.

"I remember our Mike linebacker getting hurt and I was able to step up, contribute to the team, finish out the season as the starting middle linebacker," Lathers recalled this week. "I earned Freshman All-SEC honors. That was a great thing for me - gave me experience, playing time and helped me out a lot this season."

After finishing up the South Carolina game, Lathers started the rest of his redshirt freshman season, exhibiting why Lane Kiffin once praised him for having "first-round ability." Lathers recorded six tackles in Game 9 vs. Memphis, 7 stops in Game 10 at Ole Miss, 12 tackles in Game 11 vs. Vanderbilt, 6 stops in Game 12 at Kentucky and 12 tackles in the Chick fil-A Bowl vs. Virginia Tech.

He wound up ranking fifth on the 2009 team in tackles - a pretty impressive stat considering that he started just five of the 13 games.

With Nick Reveiz reclaiming the middle linebacker job he held the first four games of 2009, Lathers moved to the weak side this season. Despite nagging injuries, he has started every game, ranking fourth among Vol defenders in tackles (35) and second in sacks (1.5).

Lathers made one of Tennessee's best defensive plays of Game 7 against Alabama last Saturday night, barreling into the backfield and running over 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram en route to a seven-yard sack of Tide quarterback Greg McElroy.

"It was basically a man match-up play where I had the running back," Lathers recalled. "The first quarter we saw that they were leaving the back in (to pass protect), so we decided to act every time the back stayed in, and that's what I did.

"It felt good. I was able to do what I do best - run through running backs. Our coach (Chuck Smith) thinks no back should be able to block us, and that's what I did."

Lathers' sack was one of few defensive gems Tennessee managed vs. Bama, however. The Tide pulled away in the second half and rolled 41-10, dropping the Vols' record to 2-5 overall and 0-4 in SEC play.

So, what's the mood of Tennessee's players these days?

"Same as every week," Lathers said. "Just go back to work the next week, forget about what happened the past week."

Asked if it's more difficult to "go back to work" after a 31-point spanking, Lathers shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "You just have to handle it like a pro. Win or lose, you have to go back to the drawing board, go back to practice."

Although the Vols gave up 41 points last weekend, Lathers says Tennessee defenders firmly believe in themselves.

"We're getting more and more confident as we go," he said. "We played a good game. We just had some mental breakdowns in the third quarter that really hurt us and gave up some big runs."

Tennessee expected Bama to hand the ball to Ingram and backup Trent Richardson all night. Instead, the Tide riddled the Vols for 326 passing yards.

"Coming into the game we knew they was going to run the ball," Lathers said. "We didn't think they were going to pass the ball as much as they did.... We've just got to contest the receivers a little more than we did."

Tennessee's stop unit faces another stern test this weekend at South Carolina. The Gamecock attack features a gifted but erratic quarterback (Stephen Garcia), a superior running back (Marcus Lattimore) and a terrific receiver (Alshon Jeffery).

"It's a lot of similarities between Alabama and South Carolina," Lathers conceded. "Steve Spurrier is going to run some of the same plays Nick Saban did, so we've got to be prepared for it."

Tennessee carried a losing record (3-4) into last year's South Carolina game but stunned a Neyland Stadium crowd by donning black jerseys and hammering the Gamecocks 31-13.

Might the black jerseys make another appearance Saturday afternoon in Columbia?

"I'm not sure," Lathers said with a grin, "but I highly doubt it."

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