Junior linebacker Curt Maggitt back at UT Vols' practice

photo University of Tennessee linebackers A.J. Johnson (45) and linebacker Curt Maggitt (56) run during a drill at Haslam Field.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt returned to practice Tuesday afternoon and appears likely to play in the Volunteers' home game Saturday against Western Kentucky.

The junior, one of Tennessee's best defensive playmakers, has struggled some through recovery from the torn ACL he suffered against Missouri last November.

First-year coach Butch Jones said Maggitt's return is significant.

"It was great to have him back in full pads," Jones said. "He went through all of practice and made some plays, so it was great to have him back. We'll see how he progresses throughout the course of the week to see if he's game ready by Saturday."

Though he's been sidelined for the large part of the past nine months, Maggitt is considered one of Tennessee's leaders, and the Vols certainly will be glad to see him return.

"That there is a true warrior," tailback Rajion Neal said. "A lot of guys feed off Curt, and it's exciting to see him out there, definitely, in some live periods that we had. It's a big boost.

"He's part of our team, and he's been a part of us for three years now. We've all played with him, we know his style of play and we miss him. We can't wait for him to get back out there and contribute."

Jones has said all along that the Vols wouldn't rush Maggitt back, and that remains the plan.

"Everything," he said, "is making sure he's ready to go before we put him out there in obviously live game situations."

On the run

After Kentucky, which finished 11th in the SEC in rushing last season, ran for 216 yards against Western Kentucky, the Vols will look to establish the run game early against the Hilltoppers.

"I feel like it's always important to establish the run with the offensive line," center James Stone said. "It's something we focus on every week, and it's something we're going to continue to focus on and especially with this defense. Especially coming off last week, we really want our yards on the ground."

The Vols rushed for more than 300 yards against Austin Peay in the opener, but Neal said that was expected.

"We did what we were supposed to do," he said. "It was nothing to run around and brag about. You've got to run the ball in this league, and that's what I plan to do."

Good blocking from wide receivers is key when establishing the run, and redshirt freshman Jason Croom showed its importance when his block helped Neal find the open field on his 47-yard touchdown run.

"There's always room for improvement, but our receiving group is proud of our blocking," Croom said.

Topper test

Western Kentucky raised eyebrows across the nation when it toppled an SEC team last week, and the Vols are aware of the upcoming challenge.

"It's definitely a bigger test," Neal said. "They've got a lot of guys on defense that are going to make a lot of noise.

The Hilltoppers used a balanced attack (271 yards passing, 216 rushing) in their victory against Kentucky.

"They want to do anything they can to dominate us," Vols cornerback Justin Coleman said. "They've got a good running back and a good offense, but I feel like we can stop them."

The junior also gave some advice to the young defensive backs, including freshmen Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman, on what to expect against WKU's receivers.

"I told them to expect meshes and double moves," Coleman said. "They've got to have more eye discipline. The receivers are going to try to beat them off the line and try to go deep."

Extra points

Jones said linebacker A.J. Johnson, who scored six rushing touchdowns in 2012, has worked some on offense this week. ... Defensive end Jacques Smith didn't practice Tuesday, but the former Ooltewah star will have the pins in his broken thumb removed today and possibly could play Saturday, Jones said. ... Corey Vereen is "way ahead of schedule," Jones said, in his recovery from knee surgery last month. "He's running," the coach said. "He's doing change-of-direction drills, so we anticipate him back very, very shortly." ... Receiver Devrin Young injured his left hand bracing himself for a fall during a route on Tuesday and left the practice field with trainers.

Correspondent Sam Gilbreath contributed to this report.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.