Herman Lathers has been waiting for this moment for more than a year.
Tennessee’s fifth-year senior linebacker missed all of the 2011 season with a fractured ankle, but his angst to get back on the field goes well beyond his injury.
He’s ready to show that the Vols are back, which has he and his teammates itching to get inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff against NC State on Friday.
“It will feel great,” Lathers said. “We didn’t finish last year like we wanted to. I didn’t play last year, so me making a statement and my team making a statement is a big thing, especially because we have a lot of new coaches. We’re looking to set the tone for this year through our first game.”
And this game very well could set the tone for a Vols team that has seen some dark days during the Derek Dooley era. After losing to Kentucky for the first time since 1984 and failing to reach a bowl game, Tennessee was nearly left for dead last season and Dooley found himself on the proverbial hot seat.
Lathers wants to restore Tennessee’s image with a strong run that could start with an impressive showing in the opener against up-and-coming NC State.
Dooley understands the importance of Friday’s game, but he believes the result won’t make or break Tennessee’s season.
“We were saying the same thing last year going into the Cincinnati game, who won 10 games (in 2010), and probably played our best game since we’ve been here and stroked them,” Dooley said. “Then, we went on and had a real disappointing finish in our season.
“It’s one game. It’s an important game. It’s a great opponent, but at the end of the day, every team gets measured by their body of work over 12 weeks.”
That might be true, but there’s no denying that a loss Saturday would send Tennessee’s faithful into a tizzy, and the flames around Dooley’s seat would only grow in strength. For Dooley’s sanity, this is almost a must-win.
Auburn, which joins the Vols for the second day of the Kickoff against No. 14 Clemson, isn’t in the same pressure situation. But its opener could help to set the tone for the season, especially with two new coordinators -- Scot Loeffler (offense) and Brian VanGorder (defense).
Gene Chizik feels this game won’t define Auburn’s season, but it will help create the Tigers’ identity. It’s easy to get more comfortable with new coaches after 20-plus practices, but evolving those relationships and defining identity takes games.
“Even though we’re in a better place right now, in terms of learning the X’s and O’s with two new coordinators, we have to develop the personality of our team,” Chizik said. “This will be a great situation for us to start to develop who we are.”
Tennessee is also dealing with a band of new coaches -- seven to be exact, including four on defense. Dooley expects some hiccups, but Lathers said the defense’s trust in its new coaches, especially coordinator Sal Sunseri, has grown tremendously since the spring. There were rough spots when Sunseri was first unloading his new 3-4 defense, but Lathers said the scheme is coming more naturally to players.
Both coaches hope to get some sort of SEC blueprint out of this weekend. Dooley has lavishly praised NC State’s talent. There’s a lot to like in veteran quarterback Mike Glennon, that depth-heavy backfield, an extremely experienced offensive line and cornerback David Amerson, who led the ACC with 13 interceptions last season.
Auburn is dealing with an extremely explosive Clemson offense led by quarterback Tajh Boyd. The defending ACC champs will be without All-American receiver Sammy Watkins, and the defense was laughable in its bowl game, but there are enough offensive options to keep Auburn’s unproven defense busy.
“It’s not going to be the tell-tale sign of how well we do, whether we win or we lose, but it will certainly give us a great starting point,” Chizik said.
Dooley is downplaying Friday’s significance, but Lathers said it’s very important for the Vols to start fast. There have been too many down moments during Dooley’s two-plus years, and Lathers wants his team to make a statement. Lathers wants the turnaround to begin immediately.
“A lot of guys are ready to come back and put Tennessee back where Tennessee needs to be,” he said.