KNOXVILLE - Having the word “freshman” next to their names hasn’t lowered the expectations for Tennessee linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
With the opportunity to start comes the same expectations as someone with the word “junior” or “senior” next to their name would have.
“I don’t think I am hard on them,” linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said. “I have expectations. How they are expected to practice, it’s not different than anyone else. I don’t change my expectation level based on someone’s talent level. I expect them to play with toughness and effort and get lined up. And with the opportunity to tackle, I expect them to get him on the ground.”
Johnson and Maggitt have done just that, combining for 79 tackles. Johnson’s 45 stops rank as the best figure among SEC freshmen and are tied for most on the team, while Maggitt’s 34 tackles are fourth on the Vols and third among SEC rookies.
The pair make the Vols the only team in the country with two true freshmen among its top four tacklers.
“I think they are making steady improvement,” Sirmon said. “I am proud of them for continuing to work. I love the way they prepare and I love the way they practice. Most importantly, I love the way they competed on game day when things don’t always go perfect.”
Perfecting the way they handle themselves from Sunday to Friday is something that could take each to the next level.
“We are always working on trying to educate them on what it takes to be a special player,” Sirmon said. “Right now we are still working on those young guys. They don’t know how to watch film and those are things that we will work on especially in the off-season, of what to watch for, how to spend the appropriate time and what you need to look for.”
Johnson has compiled 34 tackles in the last two games, including 13 against Alabama, which were the most by a Vol this season.
The Gainesville, Ga., native’s effort against the Tide earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
“I think he is getting more and more comfortable,” Sirmon said. “We talked earlier in the season that he and Curt were going to get more and more reps. The more reps we can manufacture and the more times in can play in games, the more he is going to play to the level we expect him to. Just playing off instincts, playing with effort and playing with confidence is what we are trying to see.”
RAJION MAKING PROGRESS
With two of Tennessee’s biggest offensive threats sidelined with injuries and a true freshman quarterback set to start this Saturday against South Carolina, the Vols are looking for some new playmakers to step up in the coming weeks. Arguably the fastest player on the UT roster, sophomore wide receiver Rajion Neal is one of the players the Vols are hoping can fill that void.
A convert from tailback, Neal has the tools and ability to make big plays as evidenced by his juggling catch down the sideline for a 38-yard gain against LSU earlier this season, but is still looking for that breakout game.
“Rajion is coming along as a receiver,” wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett said. “He has a lot of talent. First of all he has speed; second of all he has excellent hands. His problem is he has to learn how to be a receiver. Making that adjustment from running that ball and tucking it away in the arm to catching it out in the open field is two totally different things. I am pleased with his progress, I think he studied and tried to learn everything we have taught him. I think the sky is the limit with that guy. He has a lot of abilities.”
For now, Neal knows he is still early in the transition to a new position and is simply focused on the process of getting better as a wide receiver every day. If he can do that, he knows the results will come.
“I’m still learning,” Neal said. “I’m definitely getting into that strictly wide receiver mindset and trying to perfect the routes and reading coverages. I’m learning a lot and still be coached. It’s a great experience and I’m having fun.”
Neal is quick to point out the role Coach Baggett has played in making his transition as smooth as possible.
“He just sits down with me a lot and goes over the routes and the practice game plans every day,” Neal said. “He goes over the game plan for me come Thursday and gives me big tips and reminders. He’s just really coaching me, showing me film and actually getting out here doing walk-throughs and showing me the right way to stem a guy, beat a guy. He’s just really coaching me up and I’m just soaking it all in.”
Freshman defensive back Justin Coleman has seen his fair share of ups and downs this season. Beginning the season as a starter, Coleman struggled in the early part of the year, but kept his spot on the depth chart.
“I think he has his feet underneath him and has his breath back a little bit,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “Early in the season, he had a couple of tough games there, but he’s battled through practice. He’s earned his reps through practice and that’s how you have to do it. We are not down on Justin at all. I expect him to go in there and compete well.”
Competing well is what Coleman has done. In the second half at Alabama, he recorded his first career pass breakup.
“Here is a guy who has kind of been on the shelf the last few weeks, but he had a lot of spunk and had some energy and he made some plays,” defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. “That was exciting to see.”
Joseph attributes Coleman’s resurgence to his competitive character.
“I think that is part of his makeup,” Joseph said. To come back in and play in that environment against that caliber of a team. I think he went in there and did a good job. That is really a tribute to how the kid was raised and the type of kid he is.”
Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon
(On what he liked about A.J. Johnson in high school)
“I liked that he was athletic. I liked that he could play multiple positions. I liked that he was always running the football. When you play wildcat quarterback for your team and you are 6’2, 250 and you make 17 (or) 18 tackles a game and the coach doesn’t let you off the field, that is a good sign.”
(On linebacker Austin Johnson)
“Austin did a great job with the whole group during the offseason. It was a big role for him to take on with two young guys out there, but he has done a good job of accepting it. Those three guys are trying to get close and we have all those situations and experiences when all those three guys are out there and I think they have become closer.”
(On linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton)
“He has been someone I have thought he has done a really good job of applying himself. He has the physical abilities. He needed to demonstrate his ability more consistently in practice and he has begun to do that and play more physical. He played a dozen reps on Saturday and was involved in four or five tackles , so that was really good to see.”
Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph
(On Rod Wilks)
“We are getting to the point in the season where (Brent) Brewer is getting a lot of snaps, Rod (Wilks) has been practicing well and we really want to rest Brewer after some kicks, after he was covering. Rod went in and got, I think, 10 to 15 snaps and did a good job. I think it helped Brewer stay a little fresher, especially late in the game.”
(On the secondary)
“To be honest, the biggest thing is we hadn’t made the play. Not the great play, just a routine play. That is a thing that I will continue preach is just to make the play that you are capable of, not an extraordinary play. Hopefully, as we keep trying to pound, osmosis will get it into their brain somehow.
Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw
(On Justin Worley)
“If you look at the statistics from high school the kid threw about 70 percent and that is because of his motion. He knows how to throw the ball accurate. Now, he needs to speed that up at the next level. He has worked on that from the spring to the summer and to where he is right now. He has gotten faster with his motion. He has continued to work on his deep ball throws and different things like that.”
(On Worley adjusting to Tennessee’s system)
“He has gotten to the point now where he feels comfortable on the center and he understands what he needs to do in a pro-style offense. That is why he came to Tennessee and that is why quarterbacks come here, because you get to run a pro-style offense and you get the opportunity to play exactly like 19 of the NFL teams. That’s why you come to Tennessee. He is learning. He has done a great job preparing himself.”