KNOXVILLE - It probably was the most memorable play of Tennessee's 2013 football season that didn't involve freshman receiver Marquez North.
The Volunteers had been blown out at Oregon, beaten handily at Florida and escaped disaster against South Alabama, but the gray-clad Vols found themselves down just 17-10 late in the third quarter against Georgia, then the No. 6 team in the country.
That's when Jalen Reeves-Maybin struck.
The true freshman linebacker, a converted safety, broke through the Bulldogs' protection unit and blocked Georgia's punt, and fellow freshman Devaun Swafford caught the ball and ran it in for the tying touchdown in the eventual overtime loss.
"I think it was probably the most hype moment of my career in football, ever," Reeves-Maybin recalled with a smile after one of Tennessee's practices last week. "It just felt like it was time to make a big play. Somebody had to make it.
"We knew we were going to get one. I think we came after like three or four, and it was kind of a process. You've got to wear them down those first two, and when the moment comes, that's when it was time to step through."
Entering his second season, Reeves-Maybin is hoping for more of those moments.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder now is settled in at one of Tennessee's outside linebacker spots after playing primarily on special teams as a freshman. He enrolled last January, but he didn't go through spring practice because he was recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
He said he felt the injury stunted his development even before an August switch from safety to linebacker.
"I think [I would have played more]," Reeves-Maybin said. "I think more so just the weightlifting part, I didn't really feel all that explosive last year because I couldn't do many explosive lifts. I just had to make the best of my opportunities that I was given."
Most of those came on special teams. Reeves-Maybin led the Vols with 11 special-teams tackles in 2013. He had at least one tackle in the phase in one six-game stretch of last season.
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen called the sophomore a "cerebral" player that understands the game, and the assistant named the 2014 recruiter of the year by Rivals.com likes what the converted safety brings to Tennessee's defense.
"In today's game with everybody running so much tempo offense, you're not seeing the bigger personnel where they line up in the power O and try to play the old-school, smashmouth football," Thigpen said.
"A lot of teams are spreading you out and making you play in space, and that's what we're all looking for now, that hybrid linebacker, a kid that can play out there on the No. 2 receiver, can move in the box and he can stop the run.
"He brings a valuable part of our team for us, because he can do it, he can play in the box, he's fast, he's smart, he can communicate, he can blitz. He's going to be a valuable asset to our football team."
Reeves-Maybin, a consensus former four-star recruit, said he played more of a "rover-type role" in high school for Clarksville (Tenn.) Northeast. As a senior in 2012, he ran for more than 2,000 yards, but he excelled defensively as a junior. Classified as an athlete by multiple recruiting services, Reeves-Maybin made 103 tackles and forced 10 fumbles as a junior in 2011.
"It's a lot more physical, and you're kind of in the middle in everything," he said. "You really feel like you're playing more football, because you've got to know what the D-line's doing and you've got to know what the secondary's doing. When you're in the middle of the field, you feel like you're working the game a lot more."
Reeves-Maybin said being around veteran SEC linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt helped him adjust quickly to the position.
"I love being in the room with those two," he said. "Those two guys are probably the biggest leaders on the team, so any time when I'm around them, I just feel like I have to be successful just so I don't let them down.
"Once you come into that linebacker room," he added, "Curt and A.J., they're going to hold you to a high expectation."
And now Reeves-Maybin is hoping for more moments like the one in Neyland Stadium last October.
"We're very pleased on where Maybin's at because he comes over from the secondary, then all of the sudden you move him closer to the box," Thigpen said. "Things happen a lot faster at that position.
"I think now with a year being in, and a year in the film room now, he's starting to understand blocking schemes, where he fits, now where he can see the overall scheme and the overall picture where everybody's at in the scheme of things."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org