D.J. Key led the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a career-high 13 tackles last Saturday against Georgia Southern. And the All-Southern Conference senior isn't even 100 percent yet.
A bone bruise in the safety's left foot kept him off the field for virtually all of preseason practice, and he missed the Mocs' season-opening loss to UT-Martin because of it. Key returned for the Georgia State game in week two and has been regaining his old form ever since.
The Mocs (2-2, 0-1) host Western Carolina (1-4, 0-2) in a SoCon game Saturday evening at Finley Stadium.
"I'm still a little sore, but I'm about 95 percent," Key said before UTC's practice Tuesday at Scrappy Moore Field. "I'm feeling pretty good and I'm ready to get back to work."
Key was in Mocs coach Russ Huesman's first signing class in 2009, though the former Hickman County High School player didn't start out with a full scholarship.
"We're not overly smart here," Huesman said with a laugh. "We took D.J. and I think we signed him to maybe a third of a scholarship."
That's a move that has worked out well. After redshirting in 2009, Key made the SoCon all-freshman team in 2010. He was second-team All-SoCon in 2011 and made the first team last season, when he had 82 tackles and two interceptions.
Key was one of five Mocs on the SoCon coaches' preseason first-team defense. A former UTC safety himself, Huesman said Key's instincts for the game are what make him special.
"I think the thing that D.J. does, he's got unbelievable football sense," Huesman said. "You tell him what to do and he does it. He lines up correctly and he's got great football instincts. Those are things that you just can't teach, those football instincts. He's made some unbelievable plays since he's been here, and he's been a great leader.
"He's one of my all-time favorites to come through here because of how he plays."
Having an instinct for the game might be natural, but Key said any success in games is the result of work in practice and the film room.
"An instinct for the game comes from practice," he said. "If you come out here and do the same things every day and you work on those little things, like Coach always says, every day, then you'll go into the game situation and it will be second nature.
"You'll go out there and make that play or get off that block or whatever it takes to get them on the ground."
The big thing Key is working on now is getting back into game shape. He spent most of August wearing a boot or riding a stationary bike, so he's had ground to make up in stamina and conditioning.
Key said there were times against Georgia Southern's triple-option attack -- the Eagles ran 64 plays to UTC's 52 -- when he felt the missed conditioning time during the preseason.
"I know I was out of shape a little bit," he said. "I felt a little tired, but most of the time I was still good, was still able to go and my legs were still good."
And they're getting better each week, which is good news for UTC's defense -- a unit that faced only two passes last week against Georgia Southern. It will be a different story Saturday. The Catamounts have a young, talented offense that is averaging 147.6 rushing yards and 215.2 passing yards a game.
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.