KNOXVILLE – Tennessee linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson are two of the best overall football players for the Vols.
The pair of juniors are both getting some potentially good news this week.
Maggitt returned to a regular, orange practice jersey for the first time in an open practice setting since tearing his ACL last November. He missed the opener last Saturday, but based on his work on Tuesday, it appears he’s much closer to making a return this week against Western Kentucky.
“He went through all of practice and made some plays,” said head coach Butch Jones. “So it was great to have him back, we will see how he progresses throughout the course of the week to see if he is game ready on Saturday."
Originally a four-star recruit out of Dwyer, Fla., Maggitt started 11 games as a true freshman in 2011 and started nine in 2012 before his injury. He has accumulated 86 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, 10.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles in his career.
The Vols could use his athleticism in pass coverage and rushing the quarterback with several potent offenses coming up on the schedule, but it’s a balancing act for Jones and the training staff.
"We aren't going to rush him back,” Jones said. “We felt his presence being back out there and making plays and it was great to see him back in full pads. Everything is making sure he is ready to go before we put him out there in livegame situations. He is further ahead of schedule."
Johnson, meanwhile, is finally seeing some of his campaigning to the coaching staff pay off. Jones confirmed that the junior linebacker has been working some on offense in practice, presumably as the quarterback in a wildcat package the Vols called “The Beast” in 2012. Johnson scored six touchdowns out of that formation last year.
“He finally got his wish a little bit,” Jones said of Johnson working some on offense.
Jones also said that Maggitt worked some on offense as well, but didn’t elaborate on how they might use him. He also mentioned that cornerback Justin Coleman and receiver Pig Howard had both worked as a wildcat quarterback.
And after using a fairly vanilla game plan against Austin Peay, Jones talked about adding additional formations such as a three tight end set and utilizing a fullback – looks that haven’t been seen yet.
Perhaps it’s a little bit of gamesmanship from Jones, giving Western Kentucky head coach Bobby Petrino more to think of and more to prepare for this week. But it also could be a sign of an increased understanding of the basics of the system for many of the players.
Jones is fine mixing it up a little, as long as players don't sacrifice the basics.
“You’ll see some nuances as we go on," he said. "If they can handle the volume, we’ll increase the volume, but, again, it comes down to execution.”
• Out: DE Jacques Smith, CB Michael Williams, DE Corey Vereen, TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, CB Riyahd Jones, OL Jacob Gilliam, WR Ryan Jenkins
• Limited: WR Paul Harris, S Brian Randolph, RB Alden Hill
Jones said Jacques Smith will have the pins removed from his broken thumb on Wednesday and he’ll have a chance to play on Saturday against WKU. Jones offered no substantial update on Ryan Jenkins, only saying he’s still out and they’ll continue to evaluate him on a day-to-day basis.
Corey Vereen (knee) is “way ahead of schedule,” according to Jones. He ruled him out for this week, but said he’ll be back soon.
• Several scholarship players were working on the scout team on Tuesday. Some notable ones include RB Alden Hill, WR Ryan Jenkins and WR Drae Bowles.
• The Vols held their “circle of life” drill before practice where an offensive and a defensive player go head-to-head with the rest of the team circled around them. Defensive end LaTroy Lewis had the most notable performance, completely blowing tight end Woody Quinn off the ball and driving him all the way out of the circle.
• Jones, never shy about taking jabs at some of his own players at practice over the microphone, was after star linebacker A.J. Johnson before practice. He told him he would see a “real NFL linebacker” in Western Kentucky’s Andrew Jackson. He told Johnson that Jackson is a first-round pick, while he’s an NFL practice squad player. He later jokingly told an assistant to bring a white football to the game so he could get an autograph from Jackson.
CBSSports.com rates A.J. Johnson as the No. 1 inside linebacker eligible for next year’s draft and projects him as a second-round pick. Jackson is rated as the No. 4 inside linebacker and projects him as a 3rd-4th round pick.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga