published Thursday, July 31st, 2014

UT Vols' freshmen need 'right mindset' to play early

University of Tennessee linebackers A.J. Johnson (45) and linebacker Curt Maggitt (56) run during a drill at Haslam Field in this file photo.
University of Tennessee linebackers A.J. Johnson (45) and linebacker Curt Maggitt (56) run during a drill at Haslam Field in this file photo.

KNOXVILLE — A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt were there three years ago.

With two of Tennessee's top three linebackers from 2010 gone and another lost for the season to an injury during the summer, the two freshmen got early opportunities to start and fill significant roles.

Not long into the Volunteers' preseason training camp that August, Johnson, now a senior two-time All-SEC linebacker, and Maggitt, a fourth-year junior who missed the 2013 season while recovering from a serious knee injury suffered late in 2012, were true freshmen working with the first-team defense.

"I wouldn't say it was hard," Johnson said at SEC media days. "It was more fun, and it was a challenge. Challenges are great. It was fun. I was able to step in and help the team as a freshman.

"If you come in with the right mindset, you're coming in to work and give your all, and that's the last thing you're worried about, how hard it's gonna be. You're gonna be attacking each day trying to get the best out of the day."

Heading into the 2014 season with one of the youngest teams in the country, Tennessee and second-year coach Butch Jones, who will speak to the media at a noon news conference today ahead of Friday night's first practice, are hoping many of the freshmen that were part of a highly-rated 2014 recruiting class share a similar mindset.

That's because the Vols will be counting on a handful of newcomers across the board from tailback, receiver and offensive tackle to linebacker and safety. It may make for some growing pains during the season, but it'll make for an intriguing training camp, which will provide a second look at some freshmen and a first glimpse of many others.

"They grow up differently," Jones said. "You look at a lot of the great players that have performed in the SEC early, and were they better football players their third or fourth year in the conference than their first? Absolutely, and that's why we're going to have to rely on the older players we do have to continue to nurture them and bring them along.

"That's part of the attractiveness that they had to come represent the University of Tennessee, is the great opportunity to play early."

Both Johnson and Maggitt played and thrived from the start of their careers.

Johnson went on to earn consensus Freshman All-America honors in 2011, when he was the Vols' second-leading tackler, and Maggitt earned an All-SEC freshman team spot after tying for third on the team in tackles despite missing one game.

"It's all football, but there's some things you're gonna have to learn to do," Maggitt said. "Me and A.J. being experienced going through that is gonna help these younger guys.

"It's staying fresh. I probably would have not had a few injuries if I had done extra stretching, extra hydrating, extra recovery, preventative maintenance. Some of those things are things you might not want to do, but it's gonna help you in the long run."

Johnson said he's seen a few newcomers share the same mindset he had in 2011.

"I feel like a lot of them came in like that," he said. "They came in ready to go. They came in working. There's some of them that came in better than me."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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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