Freshmen flank senior as UT 'backers

Freshmen flank senior as UT 'backers

August 30th, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee linebacker Austin Johnson, center, runs a drill while his teammates look on during a practice.

Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Austin Johnson will be in the middle of doubled-up history Saturday evening.

For the first time since freshman eligibility was reinstated in 1972, the University of Tennessee will start a true freshman at linebacker in a season opener when the Volunteers host Montana at Neyland Stadium. In fact, the Vols will start two: outside 'backers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson flanking the senior.

"That is surprising," the middle linebacker said after Monday morning's practice.

"If you see these two guys play, they don't act like freshmen and they don't play like freshmen," the senior added. "They're going to come out here and they're going to show people what they've got, and I'm excited to see what they're going to bring."

He isn't alone in wanting to see the dreadlocked duo in action. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Maggitt and the 6-2, 245-pound younger Johnson were the story of preseason camp and asserted themselves into starting roles after just a little more than a week.

UT's coaches have struggled to hide their excitement about the two freshmen, and public rave reviews have been consistent about their size, speed, athleticism, instincts and ability to learn the system rather quickly.

But when Maggitt and A.J. Johnson step on the field, they'll face the Grizzlies' hurry-up spread-option offense -- one similar to what the Vols saw against Oregon in a 48-13 loss last season -- in their first collegiate game.

"It's going to be a challenge for them because it will be their first game," coach Derek Dooley said. "There's going to be a lot of anxiety, and then you add the component that, when they're out there, stuff's going to be moving.

"We didn't handle it very well against Oregon. It's having that mental stamina. When the play's over, we've got to move on to the next one, and you're out of that routine that you're normally in. It will be a challenge for them."

The immediate adjustment for the freshmen will be transitioning from camp practices and focusing on the Vols' own system to scouting another offense and learning its tendencies.

"It's a huge adjustment," Austin Johnson said. "I think the biggest test for them is going to be when we get into the game and dealing with the tempo. They're going to get tired, and they just have to fall back mentally on the basics. I think that's going to be their biggest challenge, but I think they're ready for it."

Maggitt and A.J. Johnson will have a veteran presence to look to for help. Austin Johnson played behind Nick Reveiz at middle linebacker last season and switched to an outside spot when Herman Lathers missed spring practice with shoulder surgery.

With Lathers still sidelined from a June ankle injury and Maggitt and A.J. Johnson playing well, Austin Johnson went back to the middle, where he fits what the Vols want from a physical, experience and knowledge standpoint. It's a role he prefers, even though the two history-makers at his side may not need his help as much as typical freshmen.

He said they "don't necessarily come to me about everything, but when we're on the field, I'm supposed to be there helping them and guiding them. I take that responsibility and ... I definitely embrace it. I like being the vocal guy and the guy to lead the group. That's what I keep on doing."

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