COLUMBIA SC - OCTOBER 30: Stephen Garcia #5 of the South Carolina Gamecocks gets away from Herman Lathers #34 of the Tennessee Volunteers during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on October 30 2010 in Columbia South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Another spring practice is in the books for the Tennessee Volunteers, and this one was without question the most important for head coach Derek Dooley. Following two consecutive losing seasons, a disappointing, season-ending loss to Kentucky and a mass exodus of coaches, Dooley needed to foster some good will -- along with develop some players -- throughout his 15 allotted practices this spring.
Though the Vols are by no means where they need to be to contend for an SEC title, there were some positive reports that has given us some hope that we can be competitive again. Over the course of the next few days, we'll take a look at the seven offensive and defensive players who made crucial steps this spring. Some of the names may be familiar. Some may not be. And there will be others who you think should have made it left out.
But let's start the series by taking a look at one offensive and defensive player who made a significant stride ... and both of these guys are names you certainly know.
OFFENSE -- DA'RICK ROGERS JR. WIDE RECEIVER
Everybody knows what Rogers can do and the kind of player he can be. A 1,000-yard season and All-SEC campaign in 2011 proved his talent, and the Sporting News thinks enough of his all-world potential that they named him college football's 18th-best player in a ridiculously early countdown. It has never been about Rogers' talent, though. The mercurial receiver has had myriad attitude issues throughout his career as a Vol. He has reportedly sulked, pouted, ran off coaches, sparred with strength and conditioning coaches, alienated teammates, struggled to keep up his grades, narrowly avoided serious trouble -- about everything you can think of to fit the definition of "team cancer."
Then at the start of spring drills, rumors again surfaced that -- following a misunderstanding with coaches about a ride from his home in Calhoun, Ga. to Knoxville, a missed team function and a subsequent suspension -- Rogers was seeking a transfer. But after a meeting with Dooley, Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter, Rogers re-surfaced on the practice field with a new commitment and dedication. Though nobody is holding their breath that he has completely reformed just yet, Rogers was the consummate teammate this spring. He got along with everybody. There were no reported incidents. Perhaps equally as important, Rogers did the little things it takes to be a great wide receiver. He didn't sulk as UT worked on the running game and he went catch-less. He blocked so well that coaches went out of their way to praise him. He ran better routes. Stayed focused.
This is a massive step in the right direction for Rogers. Like Janzen Jackson, we have to keep our fingers crossed with all the positivity, but this was a necessary move for Rogers to make in his maturity and in the team's overall relationship. Dooley cannot afford to lose Rogers, and he also can't really afford to treat him differently and split the team. That means it's on Rogers to act like an adult and be a teammate. It was only a small sample set, but Rogers did that, at least for a bit. And that may be one of the biggest storylines this spring.
DEFENSE -- HERMAN LATHERS SR. LINEBACKER
Again with Lathers as with Rogers, nobody questioned the talent when it came to UT's returning elder statesman on defense. But with Lathers, there has never been an attitude problem. His issue has always been staying healthy. After returning from a nasty leg injury that cost him all of the 2011 season, Lathers wasn't expected to be full-speed or even go through all the drills this spring. As a result, UT's linebacking corps was a massive question mark.
All of that changed when Lathers played through pain -- and at an equally high level -- on the inside, allowing coaches to keep Curt Maggitt outside and giving new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri some options and a wily veteran in his linebacking corps.
Lathers -- who has battled everything from cancer to leg injuries -- has to stay healthy, but with his final season of eligibility upcoming, the Vols need him to be productive, and this spring indicated that he can. That is a big, big deal for a Vols team learning a new defensive scheme. Everybody knows what Lathers can do when he's healthy. He has the potential to be one of the league's best linebackers and was a no-doubt NFL talent before he was shelved with the injuries. Now, he and fellow oft-injured linebacker Greg King are back in the rotation, and UT needs them to stay there.
Lathers is only going to get stronger and stronger, so the offseason in the weight room is very important for him to keep building up that leg. But if he and the other linebackers can stay healthy, that position may be more of a strength than previously expected.