Frosh to watch

At least three freshman defenders project to play key roles when Tennessee opens the 2011 football season Sept. 3 vs. Montana.

Vol defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox confirmed this week that linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt will be seeing meaningful action in the opener, perhaps even starting.

"They'll play early," Wilcox said. "They've earned it through their play and how they've prepared."

Johnson, a 6-3, 245-pounder, has been starting recent scrimmages at weakside linebacker. Maggitt, a 6-3, 215-pounder, is battling senior Daryl Vereen for first-team status at strongside linebacker. Maggitt also has shown explosiveness as a rush end, recording two sacks among 4.5 minus-yardage stops in the second preseason scrimmage.

"Curt's a guy we're going to use several different ways," Wilcox noted, "and A.J. is playing the base (first and second) downs right now. Those guys will have a large role for us."

So will freshman Justin Coleman, who appears likely to start at cornerback now that the dismissal of Janzen Jackson bumped Prentiss Waggner from corner to free safety.

"Justin is improving," Wilcox said. "We've thrown a lot at him - first, because our offense has really good receivers and, second, because they give you a lot of formations and motions. He's started swimming a little bit because of all the multiples but we'll expect to see him continue to play better and better because all of that will slow down for him."

Coleman, a 5-10, 185-pounder, overcomes his lack of size with an aggressive nature.

"I love his attitude," Wilcox said. "The guy is tough and he wants to complete. That's where you need to start at that position because you're out there on an island sometimes and there's nowhere to hide, so you'd better have the right attitude."

Veteran Vols have raved about Johnson and Maggitt this preseason but Wilcox cautions that fans shouldn't expect too much too soon.

"Curt and A.J., we're glad they're here. We're excited to have them," the coordinator said. "They're going to get better and better but they still have yet to play a football game at Tennessee. So, before you start crowning them king, let's let them play a little bit."

Based on comments from their teammates, Maggitt and Johnson are two of the team's premier athletes. They are still developing the mental side of the game, however, which could lead to some growing pains in the early stages of the season.

"Nobody's going to line up and say, 'Well, that guy's a freshman so let's take it easy on him,'" Wilcox said. "It doesn't matter what grade you are on Saturday; you've just got to go out and play."

Asked if any freshman defenders will play other than Johnson, Maggitt and Coleman, the coordinator shrugged.

"Everybody's a possibility," he said, "but right now those would be the ones I'd bet on."

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