Vols' freshmen will play early at linebacker

Tennessee stocked up on talented linebacker prospects in this past recruiting class, and it’s a good thing.

Junior Herman Lathers, the Vols’ only returning starter at linebacker, fractured his ankle last week and isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season. He could be out even longer. Lathers missed the spring with a shoulder problem.

Also, the long-term availability of junior backup Greg King remains up in the air. He’s been saddled with knee problems each of the past two seasons and recently underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a torn meniscus in his right knee. King should be back for the start of preseason practice in August, but it’s anybody’s guess how healthy he’ll be.

What all this means is that the door is open as wide as ever for true freshmen A.J. Johnson, Christian Harris and Curt Maggitt.

Even before for Lathers’ injury, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley told me toward the end of spring practice that at least two of the freshmen would be heavily involved in the linebacker rotation. Dooley felt like all three were talented enough to play right away.

Now, the Vols have no choice.

Lathers, projected as the starter at weakside linebacker, was the second leading tackler on the team a year ago behind middle linebacker Nick Reviez, who graduated. Also gone is strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson, who was fourth on the team in tackles.

Getting junior safety Janzen Jackson back is more critical than ever now. Jackson, who was third on the team in tackles last season, withdrew from school last semester to deal with personal issues and didn’t go through spring practice. Dooley said last week at the SEC spring meetings he’s hopeful that Jackson will be able to rejoin the team sometime in July.