Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) t will be 659 days since Curt Maggitt played a snap in a game, but that's not what he's concerned about.
"It's four days from now," Maggitt said Wednesday. "That's what's most important."
"It's going to be emotional for sure. It's been a real long time since I've been out there and ran through the `T' actually suited up. I guess I'm not longer a cheerleader. I have to go out there and do it, so it's going to be good."
With emotions on high, Maggitt has a plan for keeping his feelings in check as he dons the pads and a Tennessee jersey for the first time since Nov. 10, 2012. He has missed the last 21 months with various injuries and ailments.
"Just look at the guys to my left and right, the purpose I'm doing it for, the reason I play the game and going out and executing," Maggitt said.
"I know the guys are going to be looking at me a lot. I'm just excited to go out there and play football."
With just days until his return, Maggitt is looking forward to his new extended role at both a new position, which he refers to as a hybrid, and as a leader to Team 118.
"I understand the game at a pretty high rate. I understand defensive end. I understand linebacker. I'm comfortable with the position I'm at."
Maggitt's return to Neyland Stadium also marks the new beginnings for the newcomers. His excitement to be a leader isn't one-sided as his teammates express their respect and excitement for him.
"He's definitely an energy boost to us," Brian Randolph said. "We've got our leader back and we're out there making plays with him, getting ready to go. He's come out with a lot of good leadership, a lot of energy and you can tell the D-Line is definitely focused with him in there."
STUDENT TICKETS SOLD OUT
A limited amount of tickets remain for Sunday's season opener by visiting UTTix.com. The student body at Tennessee has done its part as they have sold out their 12,000 tickets. It means a lot to Butch Jones that the students will be out to support their peers.
"I would like to say thank you to our student body," Jones said to begin his Wednesday media session. "All the student tickets are sold out for Utah State. We talk about being One Tennessee and when most places, their student attendance, their student ticket sales are down at Tennessee we are selling out our student section."
Jones is hopeful that becomes the norm in 2014.
"Now we need to make this a regularity within Neyland Stadium," Jones said. "But I want to say thank you to them. I really appreciate all their support and look forward to this season venturing onto this journey with them.
READY TO GET THE RUN-AROUND
In preparing for Sunday's match-up against Utah State, defensive backs Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph share a common focus in the film room and on the practice field. Their eyes, along with the rest of the Vols defense, are on Aggies' senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
"He's a guy who is very athletic and a very mobile quarterback," Sutton said. "We know we've got to keep our points on him and keep him in the pocket."
"He can throw, he can make good passes across the field and he's very fast," Randolph added. "It's a struggle playing against an athletic, running quarterback. You could have everything covered up on the back end and he still finds a way to get loose. That's definitely a challenge this week."
Entering the 2014 season, Keeton ranks first all-time for Utah State in career completions, while he's also eighth among all active FBS quarterbacks in career rushing yards at his position. While the numbers may seem daunting at first glance, these leaders of Tennessee's defense are confident in their team's preparations.
"For our scout team period, we put Evan Berry [at quarterback] to get a little run around and so we could chase him," Randolph said. "He's very fast and gave us a good look. He pretty much ran most of the time and then we put Joshua Dobbs in there to throw a little bit too. We've got a lot more speed. I think we're better equipped to handle a fast quarterback."
With Utah State in the forefront, Sutton also credited Randolph and sophomore safety Devaun Swafford for boosting the defense's energy and camaraderie. He believes their leadership has allowed the group to push each other to their best potential and now, it's time to execute.
"They bring a lot of leadership and experience. They're very vocal and we can come to them about anything, whether it's about football or off the field. That bond and that brotherhood that we have is going to take us a long way."
D-LINE PREPPED FOR KEETON, TOO
Team 118's defensive line understands the difficult task upon entering Neyland Stadium Sunday night. Just as the secondary is focusing on Chuckie Keeton, the dual-threat quarterback as the attention of the defensive line as well.
Freshman defensive end Derek Barnett recognizes Keeton's talent and feels prepared for what his defensive line will face.
"He's a good quarterback," Barnett said. "He can run. He's a playmaker. Coach showed us, and we got good looks from the scout team. I'm excited to play against him."
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams compared Keeton to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a dual-threat quarterback that Tennessee faced in the 2013 campaign.
"He throws pretty well when he is outside the pocket," Williams said. "We just have to get somebody in his face."
Williams believes that his line's quickness in the trenches will play to its strength.
"We have a lot of speed on the D-line, myself, (Danny) O'Brien, Barnett coming in with fresh legs and (Corey) Vereen," Williams said. "We are going to be on him."
Despite senior Jordan Williams being the only upperclassman slated to start on the Tennessee defensive line, he is confident that his younger teammates, including freshman Derek Barnett, will be ready.
"I can see him being a little bit nervous, but he is light years ahead of where I was," Williams said. "He knows the defense, knows the calls. He has some pretty good football intelligence. I feel like he will be fine out there."
The defensive line sees the challenge but is ready for the opportunity.
REEVES-MAYBIN READY TO LEAD
The Tennessee linebacking corps could be the strength of the Vol defense heading into this season, and one reason for that is the improved play of sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Reeves-Maybin, who converted from safety in the spring, says he has taken large strides this offseason thanks to hard work in the film room.
"It's been great," he said. "Going through last year, and going through the spring, I feel really comfortable now. It's no problem at all, I feel like I'm a true linebacker.
"In the spring, I knew I was going to be [at linebacker]. I just tried to learn everything about the position. All my techniques and getting everything down pat so I can play fast."
Reeves-Maybin says his mental approach to the game is what makes him such an effective player.
"It just helps you play a lot faster when you know what's going on around you," he said. "I'm kind of a guy that relies on my smarts a little bit. So [I know] what's going on around me so I can play that much faster and be on top of things."
The added responsibility of being a starter has also pushed the former special teams standout to be a better, more prepared player on the gridiron.
"I have to stay in the film room that much more, I've got to be on top of my things that much more, because I've got guys behind me pushing me. I've got A.J. in the [film] room, so I'm just trying not to let my team down, basically," he said.
His hard work has definitely not gone unnoticed. In addition to routinely drawing praise from Butch Jones, he has also earned the respect of his teammates.
"He's a great leader," said sophomore Cam Sutton. "He stays on me a lot, as well as the rest of our secondary. He stays in the film room, he knows what he's doing on the field and he's able to help everybody else around him.
"He's always around the ball, always flying around and swarming around the ball and we just need 11 guys like him on the field come game day."
HEAD COACH BUTCH JONES
»(On Jalen Reeves-Maybin)
"I think Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a great illustration of how you want to develop players in your program. Jalen played for us as a true freshman, but he played very limited on defense. But, he was one of our best players on special teams, and there's usually a hierarchy. There's usually a progression of a young player and how they develop. He gained tremendous confidence last year because he excelled on special teams. Now, his role has even grown. Now he's a starter on defense, as well. But that's how you develop players, and special teams are absolutely critical. You watch, starting tomorrow, and you watch throughout the course of the weekend, of how many games, first games, that will be decided by turnovers, by penalties, which is discipline, and special teams. Special teams will be the great equalizer, will be the difference maker, in a lot of these games this weekend."
»(On the tempo and energy level at practice)
"I was very pleased. I thought the last two days we have come out with a focus, with a purpose. That just hasn't started once we have hit the field, it has also been in the team meetings, in the position meetings, so I like the way we have approached the week. Everything you have to deserve victory, you have to earn victory, great practices, when we talk about championship teams have championship practices, now you have to be able to take the practice to the field and execute. I like so far this week of preparation. I think our older players have done a tremendous job of really mentoring the younger players of what it is to be in season and the intensity that it takes to prepare yourself to play winning football on game day."
FRESHMAN RUNNING BACK JALEN HURD
»(On keys to focus on during the first game)
"Well of course all the little techniques and details of the game but I want to focus on that play and that play only and my assignments for that one play and nothing else."
»(On Marlin Lane)
"He's a great leader. He leads me every day and I really look up to him and I'm glad he's here with me. He took me under his wing as soon as I got here. I'm glad I get to go out Sunday and get reps with him."
FRESHMAN DEFENSIVE LINEMAN DEREK BARNETT
»(On being held to a higher standard)
"[Coach gets onto me] on little things. If I mess up on a little step or a wrong angle, he will get onto me but I'm glad he's doing that. It makes me better"
» (On his position on the depth chart)
"It's good. I was excited but that means I'm held to a higher standard now and do things right and not get complacent."
SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE BACK CAMERON SUTTON
»(On being named starting punt returner)
"It's always a challenge and something else that adds to the game. It's definitely a momentum changer and I'd like to take that role. You have to have that mentality of wanting to be back there and wanting to change the game. I feel like that is a role I need to take care of and make plays."
»(On the biggest difference in this year's secondary)
"We're preparing well, we're taking care of our bodies, we're eating right and drinking right. We definitely have more depth at the secondary and definitely have a lot of guys that can play. Come game day, we've got to be able to show up and make plays."
SOPHOMORE LINEBACKER JALEN REEVES-MAYBIN
»(On Curt and A.J.'s leadership)
"Everybody knows that Curt and A.J., those are two of the biggest leaders on the team. Everyone knows we can look to those guys. They're always going to be doing the right thing. Whenever someone's out of line, we know those guys will get us right."
» (On this year's front seven)
"We've got a little bit smaller guys up front now, but those guys can definitely move...It's a new group, so people are always going to have their doubts, but we know the work we put in. We trust each other,andwe'vegot each other's back. We'll be alright."
»(On his knack for making big plays)
"I don't know, I just try to make people know my name. That's the best way to do it - make big plays when big plays are expected."
JUNIOR DEFENSIVE BACK BRIAN RANDOLPH
»(On how he knows the defense is game-ready)
"I say it's when we start minimizing missed tackles during practice. When everyone is pursuing to the ball, when everyone is communicating on the field and everyone has confidence, that's how I know we're ready."
»(On what he expects from the underclassmen this Sunday)
"I expect them to play like veterans. We feel like we did a good job of getting them prepared. They know everything they need to know about the defense so, we feel like they can play like veterans. I just try to talk to them and let them know, I know what they're feeling. I tell them, `This is still the game you've been playing since you were a little boy. Nothing has changed.'"
SENIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMAN JORDAN WILLIAMS
»(On team's performance in Neyland)
"That crowd, no matter if you try to prepare for it or not, that crowd is going to play a factor. Our energy, the sideline, everything--it will break your team down psychologically."
»(On Curt Maggitt back in action)
"It's good to have him back. He brings a lot of energy to the table and a lot of experience. He's a vocal guy, and it's definitely good for the younger guys to see him out there."
JUNIOR LINEBACKER CURT MAGGITT
»(On helping to calm the nerves of newcomers)
"I don't try to calm them down. I want them excited. It's going to be crazy for them because it's going to be a packed house. There's not going to be a seat available. I'm just telling them to focus on the game, focus on the task at hand, one play at a time."
»(On how he knew Barnett could start)
"He was doing things a lot of things just naturally that older guys aren't doing. I know he's going to help us a lot. He has a knack for getting to the ball. He has a lot of natural pass rushing ability."
FRESHMAN TIGHT END ETHAN WOLF
»(On Utah State's defense)
"I've noticed that it's a different look than we run, so schematically it's going to be a little different but we've prepared for it for a couple weeks now. So I feel were going to do pretty well against them. They have some good players with some good talent but Coach Jones has been talking and it's going to be our style of play verses theirs and whoever's is better is going to come out with the victory."
»(On Justin Worley's leadership)
"His leadership has stepped up even more than what it was. He's a great leader and great voice. He's controlling the offense because he knows there's pressure. This is his last season at Tennessee and he wants to go out with a bang and it's in his hands so he's been controlling us and playing great football as well. I'm happy to have Justin at quarterback. He's doing a great job leading this year and distributing the ball. It's been overall a great week of practice."