KNOXVILLE — Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek isn't counting on Curt Maggitt to be available for the Volunteers' season opener in nine days.
Given how slowly the linebacker's recovery from a torn ACL appears to have gone this month, that's not a surprise.
Maggitt began to add some contact work in practice only within the last week, and it's evident he's not close to 100 percent.
"We'll have somebody there step in and get the job done," middle linebacker A.J. Johnson said earlier this week. "All the linebackers in the room, we're getting the scheme down and we're all getting mistakes fixed and stuff like that. We're all making plays and being where we're supposed to be."
Even with one of the defense's best playmakers unavailable, Tennessee's coaching staff has been encouraged by how the linebackers have performed during preseason practice, particularly Brent Brewer. Should the Vols use a three-linebacker set, the former safety is slated to start along with Johnson and Dontavis Sapp. The 6-foot-1, 221-pound senior also has a role on a handful of the Vols' special teams units.
"I'm going to be honest with you, when we left in the spring, I really wasn't sure ... how he was going to fit in at linebacker, but he has a done a great job," Jancek said. "He's really worked hard. I'm really proud of Brent."
Still, Tennessee's defense needs a healthy Maggitt, and it's unclear when the Vols will get the junior back on the field.
He's been in a green non-contact jersey all month, and on some days earlier in training camp he worked out on the side with trainers. He'd jump over two stacked blocking bags and land on one leg, or work on transitioning from a shuffle to a backpedal as a trainer tossed a football to him. It's part of the ongoing plan to get Maggitt back on the field.
"The days where we do more special teams and whatnot, where I'm not doing as much on my knee, we're going to get some work in and try to tire it out and push the envelope a little bit to get it stronger," he said last week. "It's been helping build stability on it, so it's good.
"I appreciate the coaching staff and everybody. I haven't felt rushed or pressured. Everybody's been patient and doing what's best for my health, and I'm ready to help out."
When preseason practice began, Maggitt was cautiously optimistic he'd be able to play against Austin Peay in Tennessee's opener, and while the past three weeks of mostly watching practice have tested his patience, Maggitt is trying to maintain a positive attitude.
"I know I'm getting better every day, and I know it's not going to be boom, just jump all the way back to 100 percent right away or in one day," he said. "I know it's a process, and I know as time goes on I'll get stronger, I'll get better and I'll be myself again."
Throughout his first two seasons at Tennessee, Maggitt's hardly been himself. He had a sack that led to a safety in the opener against North Carolina State last season, but he missed the next game with turf toe and battled a shoulder stinger all season. A midseason calf injury that forced him to miss the South Carolina game as a freshman in 2011.
The knee injury he suffered in the fourth quarter against Missouri last November marred what was perhaps his best performance of the season.
"After my ACL happened, I just looked back and I look at it as things happen for a reason," Maggitt said. "I don't feel like I have bad luck. I enjoy playing football. I know people are going to get hurt. I don't feel like I'm injury prone.
"I've always been healthy. My dad's healthy. My brother's healthy. It comes with football. You get injured sometimes."
Some time soon, the Vols hope to have Maggitt back on the field either dropping into coverage as a linebacker or pressuring a quarterback from a pass-rushing defensive end spot.
"The next two weeks are going to be important to him, but it is a process and it is a long season," coach Butch Jones said. "We have a great training staff, and we're taking our time. Each week he starts to do more and more."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...