KNOXVILLE - Curt Maggitt starts his mornings probably earlier than his Tennessee teammates.
The Volunteers' sophomore linebacker literally is hurting from head to toe, which means the time he spends in the training room inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex is extremely valuable.
In addition to the painful turf toe that's lingered since the season opener, Maggitt now is battling a stinger that gives him two nagging injuries that require constant management and 5 a.m. drives to campus for daily treatment.
"It's real frustrating," he said Tuesday morning after practicing in his normal orange jersey for the first time in at least two weeks. "I really want to be out there with my team and give us the best chance of winning and do the best I can. The whole week off, I expected to feel a lot better, but I didn't feel as good as I'd hoped.
"I'm getting better, a lot better. I wouldn't say a percentage, but I'm getting a lot better."
The injuries have limited Maggitt's ability to play and produce, and the Vols' ailing defense desperately needs him in Saturday night's game against top-ranked Alabama. After being picked to the 2011 All-Southeastern Conference freshman team, he showed his pass-rush ability in the 2012 season opener against North Carolina State, particularly on a sack and forced fumble that resulted in a safety.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Floridian, who said he will play Saturday, made five tackles against Florida and forced a fumble against Georgia, but he missed the Georgia State game and made just three combined stops against Akron and Mississippi State.
"The problem's the stinger," coach Derek Dooley said. "You never know when he takes a hit. Could be the first hit, could be the eighth hit, could be the 28th hit. Then he comes out and he's kind of numb. You've got to wait until it un-numbs. It's going to be a problem."
At least twice after plays against Mississippi State last Saturday, Maggitt ran to the sideline in obvious pain. He's sought help from a variety of places -- including from his dad, his brother playing at Iowa State, Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and linebacker teammates A.J. Johnson and Herman Lathers - on how to manage his frustrations amid the daily pain.
"They inspire me and keep my head right focusing on what's important," Maggitt said. "When I do get frustrated, I get frustrated because I really want to be out there, and it's real frustrating. I just keep pushing, and that's helping me out a lot."
Willie Bohannon has done most of the playing in Maggitt's varied absences, both at outside linebacker and as an edge rusher in the Vols' nickel packages. He made five tackles against Mississippi State. The fifth-year senior said he's been preparing as if he was a starter throughout the season and admitted his mental approach dropped off late last week and showed in the game.
"I think I'm doing pretty good, with the exception of last week," Bohannon said. "I've taken full advantage of all my opportunities, and I've made plays and had a chance to go out there and move myself up and play more. [Coaches are] just telling me to keep confidence and have confidence in what I do and don't get out there and overthink things.
"They know I know it, and I know I know it because I study it every day and I come up here every day and watch film."
Johnson's impressive 21-tackle night, the first 20-tackle game by a Tennessee player in 48 years, put him second in the SEC in tackles per game, but Dooley suggested the Vols' linebackers still need better production.
"I don't think there's any position on defense where we say we're getting what we need," the coach said. "It's hard to say we're not getting what we need from A.J. There's a lot of things he can improve on -- pass coverage and stuff like that -- but he's a special unique player."
Bohannon and Jacques Smith, the former Ooltewah High School standout who broke a 20-game streak without a sack against Mississippi State, have been Tennessee's tandem at outside linebacker, and Dooley said the Vols need to get inexperienced sophomore Jordan Williams going.
"We're still trying to figure out the right pieces," Dooley said. "It's a struggle. We're not as good without Curt. That's just how it is.
"When you take a dynamic edge playmaker off the field, you're just not as good. It doesn't mean the other guys aren't good. It just means Curt has really good ability."