KNOXVILLE -- Jalen Reeves-Maybin showed up on Tennessee's special-teams unit the past two games.
The true freshman linebacker delivered his breakout moment in Saturday's overtime loss to sixth-ranked Georgia.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder from Clarksville, Tenn., broke through the Bulldogs' three-man shield and blocked Colin Barber's punt, and fellow freshman Devaun Swafford returned the loose ball 15 yards to tie the game late in the third quarter and send Neyland Stadium into a frenzy.
"We expected to block a punt," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We've worked hard on it every week. We talk winning in special teams, and we spend an inordinate amount of time in the special-teams game. We expect to block kicks because we practice them so much.
"He's an individual that is really playing at a high level for us right now in special teams. You can see his confidence growing and growing and growing. That'll start to materialize on defense as well."
The Vols have an open date to make a concerted effort to get Reeves-Maybin more involved on defense, particularly with A.J. Johnson and Dontavis Sapp playing so many snaps.
The score was the second of the year for Swafford, the walk-on who took an interception back for a touchdown at Florida.
"It was definitely a big momentum swing," safety Brian Randolph said. "It gave us a lot of juice. It got the defense amped up. We were ready to go out there and get a stop, and we just fed off it."
Reeves-Maybin and Swafford were just two of the handful of freshmen who played key roles for Tennessee.
Marquez North scored his first touchdown with a toe-tapping catch along the edge of the end zone. Jason Croom and Josh Smith made some nice third-down grabs. Tight end A.J. Branisel caught a 28-yard pass on the Vols' late scoring drive.
"There's a lot of youthfulness on that football team, and they're getting better," Jones said. "I can see it."
Jones said his offense's execution during practice last week gave him the confidence to make the choice to go for three fourth-and-1 plays in the second half, including two when Tennessee was at its own 29-yard line.
"It definitely gave us some momentum through the second half, and you have to respect Coach Jones for making those decisions," quarterback Justin Worley said. "We're out there playing the game and playing to win, and he can't really do much from the sideline except put us in situations to win when they're presented.
"We respect him for throwing the cards on the table and taking those chances."
Jones said there was "never any doubt" to take those short-yardage gambles given Tennessee's offensive line -- "We have the best offensive line in the SEC," he said -- and the offense's preparation.
"I was really excited to see Coach Jones call those plays, too, on fourth down," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "It showed he had that courage to call it. He was behind us, and he knew we could make it."
A week after he carried the ball 25 times for a career-high 169 yards against South Alabama, tailback Rajion Neal ran 28 times for 148 yards and caught five passes for 19 yards, shouldering the load with Marlin Lane on the sideline with a boot on his right foot.
"I can't wait to go home and lay down a little bit," he joked.
Neal said he expected to split time with Tom Smith, Alden Hill or Deanthonie Summerhill, but that never materialized.
"He's playing like we expect our seniors to play," Jones said. "He's giving us everything he has; he's been injured and he's been a warrior. He's added another spark to us."
Added Worley: "We preach consistency in our program, and he's brought it to the table each and every week."
Tennessee hosted dozens of recruits for Saturday's game, including eight official visitors, all but one of them rated as five- or four-star prospects by 247sports.com.
The headline visitor was linebacker Clifton Garrett, a 6-foot-2, 228-pound five-star prospect from Illinois. Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix (O'Fallon, Ill.); receivers Josh Malone (Gallatin, Tenn.), Braxton Berrios (Raleigh, N.C.) and Travis Rudolph (West Palm Beach, Fla.); and running back Derrell Scott (Havelock, N.C.), all made their official visits to campus.
Tennessee commitments linebacker Dillon Bates (Ponte Vedra, Fla.), the son of former Vol Bill Bates, and cornerback Emmanual Moseley (Greensboro, N.C.), the two-star prospect who became the 25th player in Tennessee's 2014 class last month, also took their official to Knoxville. Most of the Vols' current class of commitments also attended the game.
Due to NCAA sanctions on the program last year for recruiting violations committed by Willie Mack Garza, an assistant under former coach Lane Kiffin, Tennessee could not provide complimentary game tickets to unofficial visitors for Saturday's game, and the two-game penalty includes the South Carolina game in two weeks.
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 ...
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