- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee got to the opposing quarterback last season about as often as the Vols have made appearances on college football’s national stage the last few years.
Tennessee finished last in the SEC with 18 sacks in 12 games and was 12th in opponents’ third-down conversions, which goes a long way in explaining the Volunteers’ struggles on defense.
Likewise, they’ve been ranked just once in the Associated Press Top 25 poll (the third week of the 2012 season) since the opening week of the 2008 season and are 2-28 against nationally ranked foes during that span.
The general consensus on Rocky Top is that both of those trends are about to change, and a big reason why is the return of Curt Maggitt.
The Vols lacked an explosive finisher on defense last season, and really for the last two seasons. Maggitt fits that mold and is healthy again after redshirting and missing all of 2013. He suffered a torn ACL in a November loss to Missouri in 2012 and never got back to the point where he was confident enough to give it a go in a game last season.
“I just never felt like myself,” Maggitt said. “I gave it a shot a few times (in practice), but I just didn’t feel like myself. If I’m out there, I want to be able to go 110 percent.”
He’ll be out there in 2014 ... and in more than just one spot.
An outside linebacker in the Vols’ old 3-4 scheme under Sal Sunseri in 2012, Maggitt will line up just about everywhere next season. He’ll spend a good bit of time with his hand down and rushing the passer at defensive end, but the Vols will use his versatility to keeps teams guessing.
“You’re going to see him rushing the passer. You’re going to see him in a three-point stance, a two-point stance coming off the edge. You’ll see him at the mike or will position (at linebacker),” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “He’s an every-down player and has a great skill set, from rushing the passer to playing linebacker and also being able to match him up in man-to-man coverage.”
The 6-foot-3 Maggitt is up to the 245-pound range after weighing 233 a year ago. He has just 2.5 career sacks but tied for the team lead with five tackles for loss in nine games in 2012 before his injury. The Vols also like the potential of Maggitt at one end and promising sophomore Corey Vereen at the other end, especially on passing downs.
“I’m bigger than I was last season and just as fast,” said Maggitt, who is a fourth-year junior. “I’m ready for some big collisions. The coaches and guys on this team know that anywhere they need me, I’m there, and I think you're going to see that we have a lot of guys on this defense who can make big plays.
“Last year was one of the hardest things I’ve gone through, not being out there. It was a harder decision than deciding what school I was coming to. I was losing sleep over it, coming up and talking to Coach Jones in his office three or four times a week, texting him, talking to my dad, Herman Lathers, A.J. Johnson. It was a long, tough process. But after I made a decision, I promised myself I wouldn’t look back on it.”
The wait was worth it, for Maggitt and the Vols, because he’s already showing signs this spring of being the kind of player who can take over games and galvanize a defense.
“Having him back is invaluable,” Jones said. “I’ve said it: He’s the leader of this football team. Just his presence on the football field alone makes us better. He’s a very gifted and talented football player and plays with great intensity and great effort. He’s an individual that everybody on our football team respects. When he talks, everyone listens.
“So, now, it’s not just having him on the sideline. We have him in practice, and it’s completely different having him on the field. You can just tell.”
3dSam Khan Jr.