KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee needed immediate help at linebacker, so the Volunteers signed two highly touted high school seniors in February.
A little more than a week and one scrimmage into their UT careers, A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt are impressing.
"It's hard to say any bad things," coach Derek Dooley said after the Vols scrimmaged for more than two hours at Neyland Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. "Those guys are big and physical. They're playing fast and aggressive. They just bring a presence that we have not had at the linebacker position. They were out their running with the [starters]."
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Johnson, a four-star prospect from Gainesville, Ga., and Maggitt, a 6-3, 225-pounder from powerhouse Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach, Fla., fit the UT coaching staff's ideal size for a linebacker.
According to the stats provided by UT for the closed scrimmage, Maggitt had three tackles and a quarterback hurry and Johnson had two stops with a tackle for loss. Both are working at the outside spots, which are easier to master than middle linebacker.
"The [middle linebacker's] obviously the hardest one," Dooley said. "Those guys don't play [there]. They've got to make all the calls and a lot of the adjustments. We're so used to playing freshmen around here, we don't know what it's like not to have to get a freshman ready to play at a position. We've gotten pretty good at it."
Defense in control
UT's defense earned bragging rights over the offense Tuesday.
"I saw not a lot of mental errors on the defense, which was good," Dooley said. "They did a great job against the run. Our tackling needs to keep improving. We hit guys and they fall for 3 [yards] instead of hitting them at zero, but the defense won the line of scrimmage."
With five new players and last year's group returning completely intact, there's a logjam in UT's secondary.
Junior Prentiss Waggner and junior college transfer Byron Moore are playing both cornerback and safety, free safety Janzen Jackson has had reps as the nickelback along with sophomore Eric Gordon, and junior Marsalis Teague, freshman Justin Coleman and juco transfer Izauea Lanier are duking it out at cornerback.
"It's a lot of guys out there mixing it up," Waggner said. "Basically we're just trying to be versatile in the back end and add that depth and get help wherever it's needed."
Dooley has said the Vols want to get their best four or five players in the secondary at a time, but he said he would have to watch Tuesday's scrimmage to see if there was any progress toward determining the best combination.
"I don't know if we made any progress," Waggner said. "I think that's up to the coaches. The coaches are going to put us in the best position for us to make plays."
Smith's clearer vision
Dooley said last week that sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith has the potential to be an elite pass rusher, and the former Ooltewah star flashed a glimpse of that Tuesday, combining with fellow end Marlon Walls for one of two sacks.
"This year is a lot different from last year," said Smith, who also forced a fumble. "I'm able to see things. I'm able to [add] my own personality within the scheme and how I like to play. It's definitely a new comfort."
Sapp fractures finger
UT announced before the scrimmage that Dontavis Sapp would miss a week or two with a fractured ring finger on his left hand. The sophomore, who moved from safety to linebacker last week, suffered the injury during Monday's practice and underwent surgery that night. He is expected to be available for the opener on Sept. 3 against Montana.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...