Big year for Tatum?

Tennessee basketball player Cameron Tatum is an outgoing guy by nature. Still, one recent comment by his head coach left him speechless.

"Nobody's talking about Cameron. Well, watch out," Bruce Pearl said, shaking his head for emphasis. "I'm praying for Cameron. I'm praying that he stays healthy. Cameron has not been healthy for three straight years, and I don't mind telling you that. He's been in my prayers. If he stays healthy you're going to see some real step-up."

Informed of Pearl's praise, Tatum seemed too shocked to respond.

"Wow! I don't know what to say," the junior wing said. "I'm speechless. I haven't heard that. Now I just need to go out there and prove it, help this team any way I can and try to back that up."

The 6-foot-6, 195-pound Tatum redshirted as a freshman in 2007-08 due to chronic knee problems. He played through the pain in 2008-09, then worked hard on rehabilitating his knees during the offseason. He performed with less pain and more production backing up J.P. Prince at small forward in 2009-10 but still didn't show the explosiveness he exhibited in the practices that preceded his freshman year.

Perhaps this is the year Tatum's knees hold up and his explosive slashing ability shows up. If so, he could be a vital part of Tennessee's success.

"Cameron Tatum will have as big a change in his role as anybody," Pearl said. "Cameron's been in the program a long time, and he's finally healthy. I think you'll see a difference. He has an opportunity because J.P. Prince was at his position, and now (Cameron's) got an opportunity to really do something there.... And Cameron's always been a good leader."

Tatum, now a fourth-year junior, takes his leadership role quite seriously.

"I've always tried to lead by example," he said. "In high school I was the leader of my team from the time I was a freshman. I feel I've always had that quality in me. It was just natural, even with older guys here like JaJuan (Smith) and Chris (Lofton).

"Then, when the younger guys came in, I tried to show them the ropes. I'm in the same position now - with new guys like Trae (Golden) and Tobias (Harris) and Jordan (McRae) ... and even with the transfers like Jeronne (Maymon) and John (Fields). Those guys are older but I still feel like it's my job to show them how Tennessee basketball is supposed to be played."

The Vols need several players to step into leadership roles this year because last season's leaders - Prince, Wayne Chism and Bobby Maze - are gone. It is crucial that Tatum pick up some of the slack.

"It's very important," he said. "Those were our leaders. When everything happened last year, those were the guys that stepped up to the plate and helped carry this team. You're definitely going to need that in the SEC.

"You need leaders out there on the floor. Coach can only do so much from the sidelines. The leaders are an extension of the coach. When you've got 13 other guys, you've got to help them buy into what Coach is saying."

In addition to assorted health problems, Tatum had to deal with an ugly incident last season. Stopped for speeding on Jan. 1, he was arrested when guns and marijuana were found in the car he was driving. Neither belonged to him but Tatum wound up serving a four-game suspension.

Rather than allow the various difficulties to discourage him, Tatum has grown from them.

"The biggest thing I've learned here is the importance of being mentally tough," he said. "I've always been physically tough. Going through a lot of adversity in my life, I think I've become more mentally tough.

"When you miss a shot or mess up a play, the coaches always stress the importance of moving on the next play and don't dwell on the mistake. That becomes more important as you move to each higher level of basketball."

Perhaps Cameron Tatum will take his game to a higher level this season. If so, it could be Vol opponents who are speechless then.

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