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September 1, 2014

Maggitt all smiles after his return

The tone in Curt Maggitt's voice made it clear he had put behind him what was, by the time he was answering the question, now clearly behind him.

After 659 days off, what was it like to return to the field Sunday night in a 38-7 rout of Utah State?

"It was great," Maggitt said. "I've been ready for a long time. It's football time in Tennessee now. The opportunity is here, and I'm blessed to play for Tennessee and with the opportunity to play in front of 100,000 people.

"The training staff and the strength and conditioning staff have prepared me well. I've been feeling good for a while."

But he had been sidelined even longer.

His last game was Missouri 2012, an eventual overtime loss on an afternoon when a torn ACL set in motion a rehab process that would span two years and two coaching staffs.

Maggitt dressed and went through full pregame warm-ups last year before the Western Kentucky game, but never saw a game rep. One missed Saturday after the other, 2013 slowly slipped away.

He was back on the sideline this fall camp, nursing an ankle injury, but returned to practice in time to prep for Sunday night's defensively stingy runaway against Utah State.

Finishing with two solo tackles, including a tackle for loss, the rust that needed working through and the cobwebs that needed shaking off were held to a minimum, if you ask Maggitt.

"I did my job," he said. "I did my job tonight. It was good communication between me, A.J. (Johnson), the D-line, especially the coaches as well."

Maggitt played in the hybrid role he and the coaching staff had described in camp --- sometimes a standup defensive end, sometimes an outside linebacker.

Paired again with Johnson, the two former four-star prospects from Tennessee's 2011 signing class led what looked like a revitalized Vols defense. More sure tackles, more third-down denials, more fundamental football.

"It was just swarming, smart swarm, that we practiced and preached all camp," Maggitt said. "All year long, really. The new talent that we have and even the older guys, we were just flying to the ball. If somebody misses a tackle, someone will clean up."

Tennessee held Utah State to 244 total yards, just 11 first downs, a pedestrian 3 of 14 on third down and picked off quarterback Chuckie Keeton twice. The Aggies rushed 24 times as a team for 100 yards.

But it started with containing Keeton, who threw for 144 yards, completing just 18-of-35 passes, and rushed for 12.

"That was most important," Maggitt said. "That was the first thing on our list, our quarterback points was keeping him in the pocket. I think we did a good job with that.

"He slipped out a couple of times. But overall, the player he is, he likes to be on the run and like to make plays with his feet while looking downfield. As a defense we did a good job, especially with pressure."

Utah State, which didn't cross midfield until its first possession of the second half, was 1-for-7 on third down in the first half.

"That's why you play defense," Maggitt said. "Third down is the moneymaker. You're either" making it or you ain't.

"'Third down for what,' we're just getting hype, and that's an opportunity to get off the field. Our crowd, they were jumping with us too."

Maggitt's return was hard to miss. But Tennessee's increased defensive speed and effectiveness, at least on opening night, stole the spotlight. Even with a return from a 659-day layoff from one of its leaders.

"It's a lot faster," A.J. Johnson said, describing a unit that likes to call itself the 'Orange Swarm.' "We got some D-linemen that can move, real athletic. When you have D-linemen that can move and get pressure on the quarterback, it's going to help the defense all (together). It's gonna help linebackers, (defensive backs).

"We were getting a lot of pressure and making the quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. It helped, and starts with the D-linemen."

For Maggitt, it was a starting point in general.

With the comeback questions behind him, now the focus turns to what's next. Asked after the game where he and Johnson can improve as a tandem, the two couldn't help but smile.

"End zone celebrations," Maggitt said.

Tennessee NEWS


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