KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Vols continued prep for WKU on Tuesday with a familiar face back on the practice field: junior linebacker Curt Maggitt.
"It was great to have (Maggitt) back in full pads" said coach Butch Jones. "He went through all of practice and made some plays. So it was great to have him back, we will see how he progresses throughout the course of the week to see if he is game ready on Saturday."
Jones also said that senior defensive lineman Jacques Smith, who has been sidelined with a broken right thumb, could return for the game against the Hilltoppers, saying.
"He is having the pins out (Wednesday), and there is a possibility that he will be able to play on Saturday," Jones said.
Jones, the ex-Ooltewah High star, missed several weeks of fall camp and has been making steady progress toward rejoining the active roster. Smith was a high-octane sideline “cheerleader” for the Vols during a 45-0 thrashing of outmanned Austin Peay in the season opener.
Maggitt suffered a a knee injury in the Vols' overtime game with Missouri back on Nov. 10, 2012 and has been rehabbing since then. He missed the team's opener vs. Austin Peay on Saturday.
"I think the big thing is just when he is ready to play he is ready to play," Jones said of his junior. "We aren't going to rush him back. He felt his presence being back out there and making plays and it great to see him back in full pads. Everything is making sure he is ready to go before we put him out there in live game situations. He is further ahead of schedule."
Maggitt's return is impactful on many levels according to his teammates
"Curt brings a lot of energy to practice and the team," said defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis. "Whether he's in green, orange, yellow, red, but it was really exciting to see him out there. I heard him from the sideline going."
Even on the other side of the ball, Maggitt's presence is known.
"It is a big boost," said tailback Rajion Neal. "Curt is a part of this team. He has been a part of us for three years now. We have all played with him and know his style of play and we miss him. We can't wait for him to get back out there and contribute."
Another injured Vol is getting close to a return as well. Freshman defensive lineman Corey Vereen has been sidelined since early in training camp after undergoing knee surgery.
"Corey Vereen is way ahead of schedule," said Jones. "He is back and running, he is doing change of direction drills, so we anticipate getting him back very shortly. He won't play against Western Kentucky but we expect him to be back very soon so that is progress."
Playing both ways was common-place decades ago. But over the last 50 years, the sport of football has become more defined with specialized positions on each side of the ball. On Tuesday, Butch Jones brought to light that three members of the Vols defense that practiced on offense.
Linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt took snaps on the offensive side of the ball. For Johnson, the move was familiar as he ran the ball 12 times in 2012 and scored a team-high six rushing touchdowns out of the "The Beast" package.
Jones says the Vols have been working with various formations on offense in preparation for Western Kentucky. "You are going to be able to see those different type packages and sets," said Jones. "We started working AJ Johnson in some different sets and some linebackers too. So you will see those packages to continue to grow."
Johnson has yearned from a return to the offensive side of the ball after his success last season. "(A.J.) finally got his wish a little bit," said Jones. "Curt actually got some reps there as well."
A third defender saw time on offense as well as cornerback Justin Coleman saw some action as a Wildcat Quarterback. He was joined by receiver Pig Howard, who took several snaps from the spot in 2012, in the formation.
"We are working on (using the Wildcat QB)," said Jones. "We are working on that with Alton Howard, Justin Coleman a little bit too. You will see some nuances as we go on if they can handle the volume, we will increase the volume. But it comes down to execution."
LEWIS GETTING JOB DONE
After redshirting the 2012 season, defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis was able to earn playing time and be a part of the on-the-field huddles against Austin Peay on Saturday.
"I feel like I did my job," said Lewis. "I had a pretty good game – a few tackles and it was good for me to get back on the field and get back used to playing at game tempo."
Jones has been happy with Lewis' effort and impact on the defensive line.
"He is critical," Jones said of the Akron native. "He is progressing. I thought he took some steps in the Austin Peay game and we are going to need more from him as the season progresses. He is working exceptionally hard. He has rehabilitated exceptionally hard. We challenged him to get bigger, stronger and faster and he has been able to do that."
Lewis knew that one of the most difficult things he would have to overcome in a game, post injury, is playing at game speed and after the Volunteers 45-0 win, Lewis was able to further see where his body stood.
"I've been anticipating it for a while, but a lot of time in our practice, going against our offense, most of the time it is game speed and realistically when we got in the game, I was kind of asking when it was going to speed up a little bit," Lewis said. "So, I was pretty prepared for that."
Although Lewis felt up to game tempo for the most part, the redshirt freshman also knows there is room for improvement.
"I played well," said Lewis. "I did some things good, but I also did some things bad and I can work on. A few things with my hands and my eye discipline, I'll have to work on that. I came out today and that's the first thing I thought about."
With one game under his belt, Lewis is now looking forward to this week's game against a talented Western Kentucky team.
"They're a really good team," Lewis said. "We know that. We knew that coming in. Coach Jones reiterated it and we're not taking them lightly."
ONE GAME AT A TIME
In seven games against current Sun Belt Conference teams, the Vols have posted a perfect record and outscored their opponents by a combined 276 points, including a 63-7 thrashing of Western Kentucky in the team's only previous meeting in 2009.
But this is not the same Western Kentucky team. As Jones quickly pointed out at Monday's press conference, this WKU team has SEC talent and NFL personnel.
The team has taken that message to heart.
"They're a really good team," said defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis. "We knew that coming in. Coach Jones reiterated it and we're not taking them lightly. We're preparing for this game just as if it's Florida, Oregon or Georgia."
Senior offensive lineman also James Stone knows the importance of taking it one game at a time.
"We just have to focus on the process," said Stone. "Practice every day of the week and just focus on our preparation for Saturday.
"We've got to take this one week at a time. You can't look past any opponent. Especially not an opponent that has guys like Western Kentucky has."
Stone feels it's the defense that makes the Hilltoppers such a tough opponent.
"They're aggressive; they play their gaps," Stone said. "They play fast and want to be the hammer not the nail. We're going to have to match that intensity and just go out there and play offense the way we know how. We have to bring our A-game."
With only six more chances to play in Neyland Stadium, Stone wants to capitalize on his senior season, and that starts with winning the next game.
"You think about that a lot," Stone said. "You want to win every game, but especially the next game. This is what we're preparing for; this is what we're all focusing on right now. This is where we're investing our time right now. Everybody wants to get this win really bad."
With an early weekend forecast of mid-80s and sunny slated for Saturday, Stone said conditioning will play a big role in the team's game plan.
"This is what the preseason conditioning is for... When you have games like this that you know are going to be hot and you know you're going to have to get a lot of snaps," said Stone. "That's why we're focusing on conditioning at the end of practice. It's something you know is coming and that's why you put in all that time in the summer."
STAYING HUMBLE AND HUNGRY
Butch Jones is good at keeping his players grounded.
On Saturday, senior Rajion Neal went off for 141 yards, all before the half, as the running back corps combined for 315 yards marking the first time since 2010 that feat has been achieved.
After the game, Jones informed his team of all of the yards that were left on the field.
"Coach Jones," said Neal. "He will definitely tell you the real, raw and uncut. You like it because it is always exciting when you get around him. I think Coach Jones does a great job of keeping us level headed."
After the game, Neal was wondering what his coach was talking about that the team left yards on the field.
After watching film, he understood.
"I can say that honestly that I have seen them," said Neal. "It was the first game, had a little rust, but no excuses. They say the jump from week one to week two should be pretty significant and that is what we plan on doing.
"I think I was just looking for the big runs. I felt like I stayed true to reads, didn't bounce too much, just had fun in the open field a little bit too much."
Neal, who had the longest run of his career on the 46-yard TD run in the first quarter against Austin Peay, credits that success not to himself, but to his teammates for helping him get there.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Jason Croom saw that gratitude firsthand.
"He thanked me for that block," said Croom. "If you look you can see he gave me a long hug in the end zone."
Though Neal wished he was out on the field in the second half, he understands that he fulfilled his role in Saturday's game.
"I have been told not to chase numbers but to just go out there and have fun," said Neal. "I know what is at stake for the rest of the season and we did what we had to do for the first half. They made the call and I had to obey."
When Jones makes a decision, Neal listens. When Jones tells Neal he isn't good enough, he tries to prove him wrong.
On Saturday he did both.
"Coach Jones gives us a little trash talk here and there," said Neal. "It is fun you want to go out and prove him wrong and talk a little trash with him after you do something good. He does a good job of keeping us honed in and real humble and level headed."
The No. 16 was back out on Rocky Top on Tuesday as freshman Kendal Vickers donned the retired uniform number for some scout team work. Vickers pretended to be WKU junior DL T.J. Smith working against the ones in practice.
Jones was the first to praise WKU LB Andrew Jackson Monday morning having this to say about the senior. "He is as good of a linebacker as I've seen in a long, long time. He can impact the football game. He can change the course of a football game and I think they feed off his energy."
Gregory Grieco got the task of living up to Jackson's hype this week in practice as the usual No. 59 for the Vols wore No. 4 during practice.
Here are sound bites from Coach Jones and the players after Tuesday's practice:
COACH BUTCH JONES
(On Johnathon Johnson)
"He is progressing. He was great to see him make some plays Saturday night. As the season progresses, especially Saturday at noon we need Johnathan to step and make some plays for us. He has great ball skills. So we anticipate him getting some valuable reps for us Saturday. We are going to need him, as we know depth is an issue, so we are going to need him step up. He is working exceptionally hard right now.”
(On players responding practice)
"I do, I will see a little more when I watch the video. It is learning how to demand from ourselves each and every day. That is the only way you get better. Is to demand from yourself, demand that high level. When you have high level of expectations you are achieving becomes that much greater."
(On WKU's quarterback)
"He is managing their offense exceptionally well, you first look at the completion percentage but he is in command and he can make all the throws. They do a great job in their game and the rhythm, the play action, the quick game, the intermediate throws. They are going to challenge us with the deep ball in terms of play action and moving the pocket, very poised."
(On Bobby Petrino)
"He is a great offensive mind and a great football coach. They are well coached and they are very talented too. We anticipate seeing things we haven't seen on film. I told you they do a great job of really involving their tight ends, creating match-ups that they like, play action, manufacturing deep balls. We know the play book is going to be rolled out Saturday. Our players have to have great discipline in the back end with their eye discipline but we also have to be disruptive upfront. It is a line of scrimmage game."
RS-FRESHMAN WIDE RECEIVER JASON CROOM
(On wide receivers blocking Saturday)
"There is always room for improvement, but our receiver group takes pride in our blocking. We are trying to get better at, and the blocking game will eventually open up the passing game."
(On being prepared for more snaps in games)
"We have been conditioning ourselves for it. We will be pretty good. I did 25 snaps, but some of them did more. I think Coach Jones and the coaching staff are conditioning for it as well. I think we can handle it."
RS FRESHMAN DEFENSIVE LINEMAN LATROY LEWIS
(On refocusing after a win)
"The way the coaching staff has put it in our mind, not too hard at all. It was more like win a game and we're ready for the next one already. We can't dwell on things too much. Coach Jones said at the end of the season we can dwell on everything that happened, but right now, we have to get ready for week two."
(On defense stepping up against Austin Peay)
"For a first game, we did a lot of things good, a few things bad, but overall, I think e played with a lot of effort, a lot of intensity and it showed. We had defensive linemen getting interceptions. We had DBs getting interceptions. We had people running to the ball. That's all the coaches ask for really."
(On importance of winning against Western Kentucky)
"It's very important. We want to win as many games as we can. Our point is to win every game on our schedule and we see this as another opportunity to win."
SENIOR RUNNING BACK RAJION NEAL
(On seeing Marlin Lane score)
"I am excited to see Lane score. I know it might sound weird to a lot of people but I think just what we got through as a team and as brothers, you are excited to see your other guy get some praise and get a little bit of the glory and get some of the runs that he deserves. I was excited to see him."
(On what Coach Gillespie said to them after)
"Good game. We watched film and we moved on."
(On Andrew Jackson)
"Good player. Solid, good player. Point blank. That's all."
"He definitely has the skill set to be an SEC linebacker and I can see what the hype is about. In all, he is a good player but we have to come out and execute and do what we have to do."
(On the RB's performance against Austin Peay)
"I felt like we did what we were supposed to do. There was nothing that we need to brag about or run around like we reinvented the wheel. After watching the film and taking a closer look you could see what he was talking about. All-in-all I think we did good and we did what we were supposed to do."
JUNIOR DEFENSIVE BACK JUSTIN COLEMAN
(On impressions of Western Kentucky's quarterback)
"I hear he is a big passing quarterback, and he is going to try and throw the ball. He is going to test the defensive backs. He is even going to test the linebackers. He is going to see if we can make tackles in the open field."
(On stepping up this week)
"I feel like I have to step up a great deal. I am in their face every day. You have to have great eye discipline or you will get beat. Sometimes they do get beat, and you just have to jump back in their face and say watch your eyes."
(On watching film of Arkansas)
"We watch it almost every day, every chance I get. I watch it in the huddle, that is a little film thing. I watch it and look at mistakes we made the year that we played them."
(On the similarities between Arkansas and WKU)
"It is pretty similar. They try to get you double moves and everything. They try to pick you apart."
(On staying focused)
"We know every game is going to be hard. Austin Peay probably wasn't that tough but we have to snap and clear, not play down or up to anyone's level, we are going to play to our standards. It is Tennessee champion standards."
SENIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN JAMES STONE
(On the hype of the offensive line)
"I mean that helps our confidence a lot, because like I said, we are an offensive line. We're trying to build something this year, not really piggy back off of what happened in years past. We're really trying to build something special this year with Team 117. So, I mean it helps give us a lot of momentum going into this next week. We know we're going to have to rush the ball efficiently."
(On Justin Worley having game experience with the offense)
"I mean we got a lot of reps with him in camp, but it's always good to get some real in game reps out there with the bullets flying, and I feel like Justin Worley handled himself great on last Saturday, and we look forward to more Saturdays to come with him."
(On confidence gained from the first game)
"I mean it's a great confidence booster, because I know this is probably the first time we've had 300 yards since I've been here. So it's just something really good, and something that the offensive line can build on, and gives you motivation to keep working and get better each week."
(On what coach Don Mahoney said about no penalties)
"He was proud. That shows that people were focused and people were ready to go. It's always good when you don't have any penalties, because that's always a goal of the offense."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)