KNOXVILLE — Those 15 spring practices in a red noncontact jersey are distant memories for Curt Maggitt.
Carrying a lofty label from his defensive coordinator, the Tennessee linebacker is looking to build off a standout freshman season in an expanded role in the new defense.
"I feel like I'm caught up, and I've been in the [play]book a lot," Maggitt said after Thursday afternoon's indoor practice on a stormy day in Knoxville. He also said he liked new coordinator Sal Sunseri's system and his part in it.
"It's a lot different. I'm containing more and doing a lot of different things," Maggitt said.
Sunseri really likes Maggitt and fellow sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson. A former NFL assistant, Sunseri spent the last three seasons coaching Alabama's talented crop of big, fast linebackers. He heaped praise on his new dreadlocked duo after Wednesday's practice.
"I didn't realize this until I finally got the two of them out there together, but those two kids might be the finest young linebackers that I've ever coached," Sunseri said. "Their attitude, their work ethic, their toughness -- I am really, really pleased with those two guys. They've shown great leadership as young kids.
"I can see why both of them were All-SEC type players. Now they're becoming smarter. They're understanding what they need to do and why they're doing it and the concepts of the defense."
That's extremely high praise.
Alabama's Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, who signed with the Crimson Tide in 2008, the year before Sunseri arrived from the NFL's Carolina Panthers, were drafted in the first 35 picks in April. Current Alabama 'backers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley, two preseason All-Southeastern Conference selections, signed in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
"I think they have the potential to get drafted in the National Football League," Sunseri said of his young Vols duo. "Depending on their work ethic and everything, they will determine the round they go in. They have the talent to do it."
Maggitt and Johnson had productive seasons as true freshmen. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Johnson finished one off the team lead in tackles, and Maggitt tied for third with 5.5 tackles for loss despite calf and shoulder injuries.
"We've got a lot of guys [who are] big, strong, can run," said Herman Lathers, the defense's senior leader. "Lot of guys know the scheme. Our main job is to get our D-line to trust us -- trust that we're going to be in our gaps, trust that we're going to run behind them."
The intense and demanding Sunseri wants more from everyone on defense.
"I want plays every down," he said. "Everybody gets the idea that you're out there, if you think you're sitting in your gap and you're not making plays but you're graded a plus, that's good. The whole thing about this defense is there's got to be production.
"If a guy's in there and he's in there for 40 snaps and he makes one tackle, he might have been in the gap the right way, but we ain't getting any production. We've got to get to the football [with] everybody running to the ball and making plays."
It starts with the linebacker trio of Lathers, Maggitt and Johnson. Along with Jacques Smith, UT's once-unproven linebacker corps now could be a team strength, at least at the top of the depth chart. The group will be expected to make plays in Sunseri's aggressive defense.
Maggitt said he learned plenty last season, from the speed of the game to the expectations and the complexity of defenses and opposing offenses. Told of Sunseri's comments, he acknowledged the words meant "a lot" to him. Yet his focus is on developing as a player.
"I'm still trying to get better and take in everything I can from [Sunseri] and be the best I can be," said the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Floridian. "Same with A.J. We're just trying to push each other every day and trying to be the best."
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 ...