OXFORD, Miss. -- Tennessee junior linebacker LaMarcus Thompson returned from an area hospital and joined his teammates for the charter flight back to Knoxville after he immobilized and taken off the field on a stretcher Saturday.
With just 2 minutes, 40 seconds to play in the Vols' 42-17 loss at Ole Miss, Thompson was hurt as he helped make a tackle on Ole Miss' Enrique Davis. Thompson, a Lithonia, Ga., native, could be seen writhing in pain on the field and swaying his hips and legs back and forth. But when doctors and trainers responded to Thompson on the field, he was eventually lifted onto a stretcher and taken from the field to Baptist Hospital in Oxford, where tests and X-rays were negative.
"The most important (thing), the early word that we have is that we were being very safe with it, but our guys felt pretty good about it," coach Lane Kiffin said. "He's had stingers; this was the same shoulder. This was worse than they had been before, but our doctors seemed to be pretty optimistic. He had one earlier in the season in the same shoulder, but this one just felt different. He said that our doctors came out and said this one was worse but that they were pretty optimistic."
Defensive end Chris Walker was on the field when Thompson was injured and explained it was a frightening moment.
"We got up and he didn't and we didn't know really what happened," Walker said. "It's something that looked pretty bad. All we can do right now is just pray for him and know that God's got him in his hands."
Thompson returned to the stadium, wearing a neck brace, and made the flight back to Knoxville. It's unclear what his status might be for Tennessee's final home game when the Vols host Vanderbilt Saturday at 7 p.m.
If Thompson cannot play against the Commodores, it would be another blow to a depleted UT linebackers corps. The Vols already have lost both Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier to season-ending ACL injuries.
Both redshirt freshman Herman Lathers and true freshman Greg King garnered increased playing time against the Rebels. Lathers made his second-consecutive start. Thompson has started eight of the Vols' 10 games, missing two games with a back injury. He has 27 tackles on the season.
Lane Kiffin praised versatile Ole Miss standout Dexter McCluster as an NFL player who exposed the Vols' various needs.
Tennessee's head coach also used that time to target his team's woeful tackling as McCluster ran wild against the UT defense, finishing with a school-record 282 rushing yards -- seven yards more than the Vols had total offense.
"We didn't have a way to tackle him today," Kiffin said. "He set the school record for rushing yards, and we probably set the school record for missed tackles."
Walker also was critical of his defense's performance but praised McCluster as the best he's ever played against.
"We were there, but Dexter's just really fast. You'll see times that we were out there and he just kind of made a move and beat us to the edge," said Walker, a Memphis native. "When you get a player like him, you can't let him get anywhere near the sideline. It's going to turn into a big gain. We really didn't do a really good job containing him like we wanted to. That's by far the best player we've played all year. Yeah (the best he‘s played against in his career). He can just take over the game. You can give him the ball at any time during the game and he'll make something happen."
Senior defensive tackle Dan Williams, another of the Vols' Memphis natives, acknowledged that McCluster's repeated victimization of the defense -- he scored touchdowns of 15, 23, 32 and 71 yards and finished with 324 all-purpose yards -- grew increasingly frustrating for UT's defense.
"It was very tough. He's hard to catch, I'll tell you that. He made a lot of plays, good cuts. His speed, I'd never really seen anybody that fast this year. His speed was able to help them get to the outside and he really just outran everybody," Williams said. "That guy's a great player and I think today he set a rushing record or something like that. Ole Miss had a good game plan giving him the ball and he did a good job today. …
"After it happens over and over again it does kind of get frustrating but you just have to put that behind you and make the next play and make sure you wrap him up next play."
Williams also said it wasn't just one problem, such as lack of contain on the edge or missed tackles, that plagued the Vols.
"You can't really explain it. Sometimes we didn't line up correctly, sometimes we didn't get it called," he said. "You can make a lot of excuses, but a lot of times we missed tackles and weren't aligned right and Ole Miss just made plays when we were not aligned and out of our gaps."
Kiffin also said the Vols' game plan of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin couldn't escape the criticism.
"You don't allow an all-time school record in rushing yards and say that we had a great scheme going," he said. "Anytime something like that happens, it's really everything all around."
While Ole Miss' Jevan Snead threw his SEC-worst 14th interception, UT quarterback Jonathan Crompton pushed his consecutive pass attempts without an interception mark to 119 tosses. Crompton completed 20 of 37 passes for 176 yards and two first-half touchdowns.
He also praised the effort of his offensive line, which seemed to struggle at times with run-blocking but yielded just one sack to the Rebels, who now have 26 on the season.
"Our O-line did a good job. There was no, ‘They beat you here or beat you there.' They just were better," Crompton said. "I only got hit like twice in the whole game except the times I rolled out. If I get hit twice in the game then that's a good game for them."
Cody Sullins, the Vols' center, pointed to little mistakes that cost Tennessee at times.
"They had a lot of talent up front, but I didn't think it was anything we couldn't handle. We didn't finish on blocks the way we should have and maintain our blocks as well as we could have and as well as we have in other games," said the perennial Academic All-SEC selection. "It's just one of those things, one of those little things that's a game of inches and if you don't hold your guy for that amount of time, a second longer or take a right angle, good guys like that are going to beat you. A little play here and there and one guy broke through the line and made tackles. We can't have those things and try to win."
VOLS VOW FOCUS
Tennessee players vowed to return to the practice field Sunday with renewed focus on their final two games against Vanderbilt and at Kentucky. The Vols could have gained bowl eligibility Saturday, but now sit 5-5 heading into the final two weeks of the season.
"Back to practice. I think every single one of the players on the team is just looking forward to getting back on the practice field and getting this thing back on the right track," Sullins said. "It's just a horrible feeling right now. Everybody just wants to get back to work and put this one behind us."
"We've just got to go back, watch film (Sunday) and we obviously have got guys in a couple of places to see what we need to improve and get ready for Vanderbilt coming in and just get ready to play ball," Chris Walker said. "It goes back to if we tackle and play ball like we know how, it's a non-factor with us. We've just got to go back and practice and get ready for the next game.
"We've got to watch the film and get it out of our head. That's why we watch film on Sunday, so we can get it out of the way. That's what we have to do. It's going to be pretty bad film for us on defense and we're just going to have to take the criticism and take the learning and get back to the drawing board."
Kiffin referenced the energy that had surrounded the program the past month and also said he reminded everyone that it's a gradual, ongoing building process.
"We've got to get back to work and do better, one game and one performance on a side of the ball does not define our team or our defense or our offense," he said. "It's why we don't get too high or too low. As much energy as there was around our program, and the talk about because of the blowouts versus Georgia and South Carolina and a field goal away from beating Alabama, it's why I continue to remind our team and remind everybody we have a long ways to go.
"We've got a lot of work to do. It continues to be evident how much work we have to do on the road recruiting."
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