Dynamic defenders

You won't find better coverage of Vol football than right here at InsideTennessee. Sign in or subscribe now for an in-depth scrimmage analysis.

Watching A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt start as freshman linebackers in 2011, Tennessee fans wondered how good the duo could be with some seasoning.

The answer may be at hand ... pretty darned good.

Johnson was the shining light in an otherwise mediocre defensive effort Friday evening as the Vols held their second and final preseason scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. He recorded an even dozen stops and forced a fumble. Coupled with a 10-tackle performance in Scrimmage No. 1, Johnson clearly has elevated his game since last fall.

"The D-linemen was feeding the gaps real good," he said modestly, "and they allowed me to make more tackles."

Fellow sophomore Maggitt recorded just three stops but one earned him credit for one-half of a tackle for loss. He also notched a sack and a hurry, suggesting he is going to thrive in a Sal Sunseri defensive scheme that features so much pressure from so many angles that it routinely confounds blockers.

"It's a lot of fun," Maggitt said. "You can tell that sometimes the offense don't have a clue, so it's a lot of fun just getting after it."

Other noteworthy defensive efforts in the scrimmage came from safety Byron Moore (2 interceptions), end Darrington Sentimore (1.5 tackles for loss), linebacker Jacques Smith (sack, 2 hurries), cornerback Prentiss Waggner (6 stops, 1 pass breakup), cornerback Justin Coleman (5 stops) and linebacker Greg King (5 stops).

Although Tennessee appears better at virtually every defensive position than last fall, the key guys in 2012 appear to be Johnson and Maggitt. The former dropped 15 pounds in the offseason and the latter gained 15, leaving both packing 240 pounds on 6-foot-3 frames at present.

"We're both at a good weight now and we're about the same," Johnson said. "We're both out there making plays and communicating with each other."

In addition to better bodies, the dynamic duo has sharper minds these days. Both say they understand the nuances of college defensive play more than they did last fall.

"We've gotten better at knowing the plays and working our techniques," Johnson said. "We've got a good handle on the game speed this year. We've both gotten faster and we've got one year behind us, so we know what to expect."

Maggitt echoed those comments.

"I feel like I'm a lot smarter this year compared to last year — understanding the scheme, understanding football and understanding different positions," he said. "It's the same for A.J. That allows us to play a lot faster this year because we're understanding football a lot more. We're communicating better pre-snap, recognizing plays better and playing faster."

Senior linebacker Herman Lathers, currently limited by a quadricep strain, sees dramatic improvement in Johnson and Maggitt.

"They're a whole lot better than last year," he said. "Both understand the defense a lot more, understand the blocking schemes a lot better. My role with those two is to teach them as much as I can, stay around 'em and help 'em learn."

As pleased as he was with Johnson and Maggitt, Lathers was similarly displeased with the overall defensive effort in Friday's scrimmage.

"It wasn't good at all," he said. "We didn't line up well, didn't communicate well, didn't come out focused. We were too relaxed. But you live and you learn."

One thing Vol defenders have learned is that Sunseri does not accept mediocrity. He'll make them pay when practice resumes on Sunday.

"We've got a day off Saturday for Media Day, so Sunday's going to be pretty intense," Lathers said. "He's going to push us to be better than we were today. Everybody knows what we're supposed to do, so it's going to be real intense."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories