KNOXVILLE - Curt Maggitt has spent increasingly more time in the University of Tennessee's defensive line meeting room over the past few months.
The fourth-year junior was greeted by some even fresher faces earlier this summer.
The Volunteers added nine defensive linemen with their 2014 recruiting class, and three of them -- junior college transfer Owen Williams, former Nebraska signee Dimarya Mixon and one-time linebacker Jakob Johnson -- began their careers in January.
All of the summer arrivals will be true freshmen this season, and Tennessee likely will need a few of them to contribute sooner rather than later.
"It's been great," Maggitt said last week at SEC media days. "Me coming in, I weighed about 215 pounds. We've got guys weighing 270 and 265 already. I like those guys a lot.
"Any time I ask them to do something, they're doing it to the best of their ability. If they need help with something, they're coming to me, and I respect those guys and I'm looking to mentor them a lot this camp."
Tennessee opens preseason practice a week from tonight, and that's when newcomers such as Dewayne Hendrix, Derek Barnett, Michael Sawyers and Joe Henderson will begin to show how ready they are to play now.
The other freshmen are Jashon Robertson, a candidate to play on the offensive line if needed, and Charles Mosley, who suffered a broken tibia in a car accident earlier this month and faces a long road of recovery.
Hendrix (listed at 6-foot-4 and 273 pounds) and Barnett (6-3, 267) were consensus four-star recruits and may be the most ready to contribute physically. Sawyers (6-3, 299) figures to get plenty of opportunities at defensive tackle. Henderson (6-4, 232) had 14.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss his senior season in high school.
Tennessee's coaches moved Johnson from linebacker to defensive end late in spring practice, and the German-born freshman could figure into the mix as well.
Yet it's almost unfair to ask a freshman to come in and play a bunch of snaps on the defensive line, particularly in the SEC.
"Sometimes I look at them and say, 'You don't know, you don't know,' that unconscious incompetence, so to speak," second-year Vols coach Butch Jones said at SEC media days. "They're going to find out once Aug. 1 gets around.
"Our older players, again, have done a great job of really mentoring [them on] what it's like, but are they going to be able to stay at our three-technique and have the power run at them three plays in a row and have to work off a double team?
"It's going to be an extremely competitive training camp."
Jordan Williams, the lone senior in line coach Steve Stripling's unit, played more defensive tackle as spring practice progressed, and Corey Vereen should figure prominently in the rotation at defensive end.
Danny O'Brien and Trevarris Saulsberry, who missed spring practice, are the Vols' most experienced tackles, while Williams and Mixon, who has impressed the coaching staff since arriving, could help there as well.
Maggitt will play a versatile role for Tennessee, and though he probably won't have his hand on the ground every snap, the coaching staff appears intent on using one of their better pass-rushers at end rather than at linebacker, what he primarily played before tearing his ACL against Missouri two Novembers ago.
It'll be a big August for ends LaTroy Lewis, Jaylen Miller and Kendal Vickers, who will have some young players aiming to move above them in the pecking order.
While Tennessee must settle on a quarterback and hope a new offensive line comes together, the Vols' biggest question is up front defensively, but Jones has been encouraged by the attitude of his freshmen class.
"They hang out, they study film, they do the extra," he said. "I come in off vacation, and 7 o'clock at night our indoor is filled with them practicing on their own. To me, that shows a lot of where our program is and the individuals that comprise our football program right now."
Maggitt, undoubtedly one of the team's leader, backed up his coach's praise.
"I haven't seen anything like it," he said. "We'll have a tough day, a tough squat day, a tough running day, and I come back 20 minutes later, you see younger guys still in there doing some extra [triceps] and [biceps], or extra on-the-field work, some extra hands. I've had a lot of guys say, 'Hey, Curt, you ready to go watch film?'
"That shows me they're hungry and they want to learn and they want to be better."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.