KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Come Sunday, it will have been 659 days since Curt Maggitt played a snap in a college football 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 for the Vols.
"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’s 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."
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 coach 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 (regular thing) 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 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
Tennessee’s defensive line understands the difficult task going against Keeton as well.
Freshman defensive end Derek Barnett recognizes Keeton's talent and feels prepared for what the 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 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 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."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)