published Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Tennessee pride finale's incentive

  • photo
    Tennessee's Prentiss Waggner, left, and Herman Lathers, right, celebrate after a play at Neyland Stadium.
    Photo by Allison Love /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Prentiss Waggner signed to play football at Tennessee nearly five years and three head coaches ago.

Saturday, his long and winding Volunteers career will reach the finish line.

The cornerback is one of eight fifth-year seniors who saw the program part ways with longtime, championship-winning coach Phillip Fulmer, watched Lane Kiffin bolt to Southern California on a mid-January night and endured three losing seasons under the now ousted Derek Dooley.

"It's been a rocky road," Waggner said Tuesday morning after practice. "I remember coming in here up under Coach Fulmer. When I thought of Tennessee, I thought of a place of consistency.

"When I came here in 2008, I think Tennessee had just come off an SEC championship [appearance] against LSU. I was stoked about coming here. But I don't regret anything. I made brothers, I made a lot of friends that I'm going to have for a lifetime and I don't pretty much regret nothing about it."

With no bowl and an interim coach, the Vols have made playing for their 12 scholarship seniors their primary motivation for Saturday's finale against Kentucky. The eight fifth-year players -- Waggner, offensive linemen Dallas Thomas and Carson Anderson, linebackers Herman Lathers and Willie Bohannon, safety Rod Wilks, defensive end Steven Fowlkes and fullback and tight end Ben Bartholomew -- have seen three head coaches leave, spent offseason workout programs under five different strength coaches and played for a revolving door of position coaches.

It's only been a part of the journey for Lathers. After his bone cancer went into full remission following five years of daily shots at age 15, he battled through a blood condition that forced the removal of his spleen during his redshirt freshman season. Since a productive sophomore season, Lathers has battled injury after injury, most notably a brutal ankle injury that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season.

Even after he was shaken up in Tennessee's loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday on the third quarter's final play, Lathers returned in the fourth quarter with the Vols down 41-10, and he admitted there have been times when he just wanted the injuries and coaching changes to end.

"I think everybody has those moments, especially when you go through a lot of injuries and you go through a lot of situations that I have," he said. "But as a leader on this team and as the strong person that I've always been, I learn to fight through stuff and I learn to put those thoughts back to the back of my head and just move on. Things happen, so you've got to be a better man and just uprise from it.

"If you look at what all's happened, I think it's made us better men. [We] understand what happens because it's a business. But we enjoyed everything that happened."

So much has happened to Kiffin's celebrated 2009 signing class, too. Receiver Zach Rogers and cornerback Marsalis Teague are the only original players from that class who finished their careers in four years, and just five others from that 22-player class remain in the program. In a bit of a full-circle coincidence, Jim Chaney, now the interim coach, also arrived with Kiffin in 2009.

"We're the last ones standing, and Coach Chaney's here with us, kind of the last three amigos here," Rogers said. "It's been a roller-coaster ride, to say the least, and it's been a lot of ups and been a lot of downs, but that's life. It's going to throw you curveballs every now and then.

"You've just got to learn to roll with the adversity."

It's perhaps been tougher on the field for Tennessee's seniors. The Vols are just 28-34 in the past five seasons, and the program has suffered through four losing seasons during that span. Win No. 29 could ease the memory of all the losing just a little bit.

"I love Tennessee and that's why I came here," Bartholomew said. "I wouldn't change it for a thing. I've been so happy with my five years here now, so I'm very thankful.

"We've had a hard time here, obviously, with all the coaches. We want to go out with a smile on our face. That's what we're playing for."

It's all that's left to play for from the Vols' perspective. The Wildcats will have the motivation to send fired coach Joker Phillips out with consecutive wins against Tennessee. Lathers insisted the Vols have fight left in them, but he admitted that Saturday's performance will have to prove it.

"This game's going to be a lot about personal pride and effort and really playing for this team," Rogers said. "I know we haven't had the greatest season and I know guys are down and disappointed -- that comes with the territory. But at the end of the day it's your last game in Neyland Stadium, and I know the seniors are going to play with a lot of pride."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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