After three weeks in athletic exile, Coker was allowed to practice with the scout squad last week but was not permitted to travel to Berkeley for Game 1 at California. He is back with the varsity this week and will be eligible to play Saturday night in Game 2 vs. Southern Miss. In fact, he is listed No. 3 at tailback behind Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty.
"It was good to have him out there yesterday, running around," quarterback Erik Ainge said. "You miss his speed. You forget how fast he is when he's not practicing. He's fresh. He's been doing his weight workouts and everything he's supposed to be doing. I'm confident that with three more practices he'll be ready to go."
So is linebacker Jerod Mayo, who spent last week trying to tackle Coker in practice drills.
"He's ready to play," Mayo said. "He did an excellent job on the scout team last week. I can see from the look in his eye that he's ready to play … focused."
Coker led Tennessee in rushing yards (696) and yards per carry (6.4) last season. Blessed with great speed, he broke an 89-yard touchdown run vs. Marshall and an 87-yarder vs. Vanderbilt. Asked what Coker brings to the team, Mayo replied: "Big-play capability, attitude … just the total package. He's a great player."
Naturally, Tennessee's coaches were a little more guarded in their comments.
Fulmer conceded that "LaMarcus Coker being back will help our football team," then cautioned that "We'll continue to work with him but he clearly understands there are no more opportunities here for any mishaps."
Tennessee's offensive coordinator was predictably evasive when asked about Coker's potential impact on the Southern Miss game.
"He was with the scout team, so I don't know what kind of shape he's in," David Cutcliffe said. "We'll see day to day. Yesterday (Monday) he was pretty rusty (as far as) knowing what to do and learning. He hadn't been in a meeting for three weeks or whatever it was. He's got a lot of catching up to do."
Running backs coach Kurt Roper noted that Coker has got to get "back into the football groove – getting in and out of the huddle, getting lined up, seeing things from the sideline that he needs to see…. Our goal is to get him ready to go, then Coach Fulmer makes the decision on when he goes in and how much (action) he gets."
Coker, a 5-11, 200-pound sophomore from Antioch, has been a disciplinary problem ever since he arrived on campus three years ago. UT coaches insist he is a quality person who just needs to mature a bit.
"Did he need major changes? No," Roper said. "He's a good person and a good-hearted person and a nice person. But you've got to make sound decisions. You've got to be accountable in everything you do within the school – football and all those things. We've got to know what's going to happen. Those are the issues."
The Vol aide said he and Coker have "a great relationship," adding: "He's a guy that I really have a lot of love for. I really care for him. His accountability level is the thing we talk about in all of our conversations, and that's all-encompassing."
Asked if Coker has made enough personal growth in recent weeks to warrant another chance, Roper replied: "Coach Fulmer gets to make that decision…. I think he (Coker) is making a very concerted effort. I think it's important to him. I think it's important to him not because of football; I think it's important to him because he wants to be successful in life and in other ways. I'm just trying to lock him in to being the kind of person you need to be in society."
What Coker could mean to society is unclear. What he could mean to the Vols is not. His speed could add a big-play dynamic that is currently in short supply. That's why Roper is excited about the prospect of getting him on the field.
"Sure," the Vol aide said. "He's a heck of a football player. He's electric … really fast. For the most part, he knows what to do. It's good when you get your players back."