KNOXVILLE - Even though he's only a sophomore, Jalen Reeves-Maybin may as well be considered one of Tennessee's veteran players.
Such is the perception on one of the nation's youngest football teams.
It's a good thing for the Volunteers, then, that the linebacker looked like he was making his 10th start and not his first in the season's first game.
In his defensive debut, Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee's special teams ace in 2013, led the Vols with 10 tackles and consistently showed up near the football against Utah State on Sunday night.
"I was pretty comfortable," he said after Tuesday's practice. "I think we did a good job preparing for them and looking at them all summer basically, so I knew what to expect from them. I definitely felt prepared.
"I still don't think I made enough plays," Reeves-Maybin added. "I think I left some plays out there I could have made. I was happy with it, but there was a lot of stuff I could have done better."
Tennessee's defensive coaches were high on the potential of the former four-star recruit out of Clarksville's Northeast High School throughout the offseason, and the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker, after adding nearly 20 pounds in the offseason to bulk up after starting his career at safety, showed why against the Aggies.
It was a performance linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen dubbed "really solid" following Wednesday's practice.
"Really this is his first time starting as a linebacker," Thigpen added. "He came in as a safety and moved to linebacker midseason, so I'm pleased with where he's at in his development. I thought last year he was kind of a fish out of water.
"He hadn't played much with his hands, and now he comes in and he's the leader in the room, him and A.J [Johnson]. They talk football, they talk the language in the room. It's a lot of growing for him, and we've just got to keep him injury-free and get some younger guys developed."
Even against a Mountain West Conference team, Tennessee's defense clearly looked faster than it did in 2013. Part of the reason for that was the additions of Reeves-Maybin and junior college transfer linebacker Chris Weatherd at linebacker and the Vols' smaller, quicker defensive linemen. The older players, too, are benefitting from a second season in the system.
Though he may struggle with the heavy, more traditional power-run teams on the schedule like Alabama and Georgia, Reeves-Maybin's skill set is best suited for spread offenses like Utah State and Arkansas State, who visits on Saturday.
There's a difference, though, in being a fast player and playing fast, and after admittedly struggling with picking up the defense last season, Reeves-Maybin put his head down and learned the defense this offseason to prepare for his new role as a starting linebacker.
"Jalen's really smart," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "He's really smart, he's really instinctive, he picks up things very quickly and it showed in his play. He plays fast because he knows what to do."
Thigpen is confident in how well Reeves-Maybin knows Tennessee's defensive schemes.
"He's really comfortable in the room when you're talking to him," Thigpen said. "He's real calm in his demeanor, he asks a lot of really good questions and he's got a real good feel for the game now. He played fast because he knew exactly where he's supposed to be at, and our guys have been in the system for a year, so they're going to look faster.
"He's come a long way since last season."
Reeves-Maybin felt his season-opening performance was a reward for his offseason efforts.
"Definitely all the hard work is coming into effect," he said, "so that felt good."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.