KNOXVILLE — Justin Hunter spoke no differently than usual -- in a soft, relaxed voice with a smile on his face.
The injured Tennessee receiver's attitude seemed unchanged despite the crutches on which he was leaning and the large brace covering most of his left leg.
"It's real hard, just sitting on the sidelines and watching," said the sophomore star who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Florida last month. "Sometimes I don't even want to go to the games because I know if I can't help them. It's not my way to do it. I just try to lift them up as best I can and help them out.
"I try to find other things to do, just try to play the game. If I can't play the game, I play the Xbox by myself sometimes just to try to get my stats up."
Hunter has been around the team every day in meetings and occasionally during practice, and he's a fixture on the sideline during games. He made the trip to Alabama two weeks ago, as the Volunteers coaches make concerted efforts to keep both Hunter and injured quarterback Tyler Bray as involved as possible while they're out.
"The first thing I always say," head coach Derek Dooley said, "is 'How can you improve by not playing?' Well, he can improve with his weightlifting and his physical strength, and he can improve in the mental part of the game because there's never a time where you can't work on something to get better as a player. Same thing with Tyler, so we have Tyler doing some things mentally, doing some things in the weight room.
"There's always ways to improve as a player, so when a guy is injured, it's what we do with every player: How can we get you to play better when you come back? And that's what we're doing with Justin."
There's also the rehabilitation, which right now consists of stretching and straightening the knee, and "sleeping and eating," as receivers coach Charlie Baggett joked as he walked by the media surrounding his star pupil.
Hunter said he expects to start more intensive rehab in a month or two, though Dooley said that's up to the doctors. Hunter is well aware of the date in which he's expected to return fully to action. He previously has written "3-16-12," which is six months from the day he injured the knee, on his Twitter account and his Facebook page.
Hunter had no problems reliving the play that cost him a potential breakout season and the Vols a third of their big-play offensive trio with Bray and receiver Da'Rick Rogers.
"As soon as I made that move, I knew the defense was going to try to run outside because they would think I was going to try to go outside," Hunter said. "But as soon as I caught it, I was getting ready to plant inside and go, and I think I just tried to do it too fast. One leg was on the ground and I was turning my body as it was on the ground."
That was Hunter's 17th catch of the season. He had 146 and 156 receiving yards in UT's first two games, and he's still third on the team in receiving yards and tied for third in catches, which shows how much UT's other wideouts have struggled.
Dooley said Hunter is recovering well and bringing energy to his teammates when he's around them. There is little doubt in Hunter's mind he can recapture his elite jumping ability and return to the level he reached earlier this season.
"I really think I'll be coming back better than I was before," he said. "They really say that my leg will be stronger than it's ever been, so I'm just trying to push to get better."
Herman Lathers practiced in a noncontact jersey Tuesday morning, the junior linebacker's first significant action with the Vols since he brutally fractured his ankle in a collision with a teammate during a workout in June.
"Herman got some good scout-team work today," Dooley said. "I wouldn't say he's full blow ready to go, but it was good to see him get his pads on and take a couple of hits. We're just kind of monitoring day by day. He's not close to 100 percent [so] we don't want to get too excited."
Lathers had 11 screws inserted into his ankle, and only two were removed in a procedure last month. He's been jogging on the side during practice for a few weeks and began some light sprinting within the last two weeks. His ankle was heavily taped then and on Tuesday, but he was on the field cutting and changing direction.
"It is good to see Herm back out there," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "I told him he needs to stop collecting checks on the sidelines and go do some work. I'm glad he's back out here working. I was kind of heartbroken when I heard about it because he's such a good guy.
"He's a great guy, in good spirits and a team leader, so it's good to have him back."
The return to practice was just another step in a long process, one that may or may not end in Lathers playing this season.
"I'm not counting on anything," Dooley said.
Curt Maggitt was a full participant in practice Tuesday after the freshman linebacker missed the South Carolina loss with a calf injury. ... Dooley said he's not opposed to replacing freshman quarterback Justin Worley with senior Matt Simms like he did against the Gamecocks "if we're not getting anything done and the situation dictates" a change. ... Tailback Tauren Poole said Monday the Vols ran "probably two" different running plays against South Carolina, but Dooley said Tuesday that was not true.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...