KNOXVILLE – A year ago, it looked like Tennessee’s linebackers might be a weakness heading into 2014.
A.J. Johnson – an All-SEC performer with two 100-tackle seasons already to his credit – was thought to be leaning towards an early entrance into the NFL. Curt Maggitt was a possibility to do the same. And outside of those two, there were few sure bets at the position.
But circumstances change. Maggitt sat out all of 2013 with lingering issues from an ACL torn in 2012 and is returning at full strength this year. And Johnson, who was told by NFL evaluators that he would likely go somewhere around the third or fourth round of this year’s NFL draft, opted to return due to some unfinished business.
"When I was getting recruited I always said I wanted to win the SEC and I wanted to go to a national championship," said Johnson. "Those goals I can reach. I know they're not impossible goals that I can reach. I want to be one of the best players coming out. I came back for those and just to build, and I love Tennessee.”
Johnson and Maggitt are the soul of a unit that will be counted on to anchor UT’s defense in 2014. The defensive front has a significant rebuilding job after losing all four starters. The secondary is still a work in progress with several spots up for grabs.
With those two, however, Tennessee has at least a chance to be very good at the second level of the defense.
"It'll be a great feeling,” said Johnson. “Me and Curt say we're going to be unstoppable. That's our goal, to be unstoppable and have a good defense and play together and have fun. I know that's one big thing – wake up every morning and have fun. It's always a blessing to be playing some football."
Sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a special teams ace in 2013, is the odds-on favorite to fill the third linebacker spot at this point in the spring. There will be added competition in the fall with several highly-rated recruits coming in at that spot, but after switching between linebacker and safety last season, Reeves- Maybin is getting comfortable at LB.
“Last year I felt light and going through this first practice (with pads) was really my chance to see how I felt as a heavier player,” said Reeves-Maybin, who is up to approximately 217 pounds and hopes to play around 220 in 2014. “I felt good today. I felt a lot better taking on linemen and I don’t feel like I’ve lost a step.”
Coach Butch Jones is relying on Johnson to take the next step as a player and a leader to help elevate players such as Reeves-Maybin, young linebackers Kenny Bynum and Jakob Johnson and the newcomers arriving over the summer.
“Just a very high level of consistency each and every day – setting the standard, being a leader,” Jones said of what he needs to see from Johnson. “Being a guy that everybody rallies around, setting the tone, setting the standard the way we run to the football, our level of physicality, the amount of preparation it takes through film study – all the things that great players do.
“Great players have a way of elevating the level of players around them. They bring the level of play up. A.J. has to set the standard.”
• Out: WR Ryan Jenkins, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Brendan Downs, TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles
• The Vols were in pads for the first time on Tuesday afternoon. They began practice with their ‘circle of life’ drill where two players go one-on-one and try to knock the other one out of the circle, which is comprised of all the other players watching. Receiver Von Pearson appeared to get the best of veteran cornerback Justin Coleman during one round. Jones sent many of the newcomers in to test them immediately.
• In what will likely be a reoccurring theme throughout the spring and fall, coaches are already trying to get running back Jalen Hurd to play lower. That’ll be one of the biggest challenges for the 6-foot-3 freshman, who is a couple inches taller than an average SEC running back. He clearly has the frame and the athleticism to play, but will need to play low to avoid taking too many big hits.
• Newcomers OL Dontavius Blair, CB Emmanuel Moseley, OL Coleman Thomas, TE Ethan Wolf, DL Owen Williams and WR Von Pearson are all consistently getting reps with the first team. Several others such as Hurd, WR Josh Malone, TE Daniel Helm, CB D’Andre Payne and LB Jakob Johnson are getting a lot of work with the second team. Some of those spots will have added depth when players get back from injuries and new arrivals come over the summer, but, for now, a lot of inexperienced players are getting plenty of reps.
• The size upgrade at several spots is very noticeable. The Vols will be smaller in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but the quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, tight ends and linebackers all look much more SEC-ready than last year. Some of that is thanks to the improvement in strength from returning players and some is attributed to the size of the newcomers.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga