The ultimate team player

You won't find better coverage of Vol football than right here at InsideTennessee, so don't waste time looking. Instead, check out this insightful article on a homegrown Volunteer who plays for everyone but himself.

A guy who plays football for his teammates is rare. A guy like Tennessee’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin – who also plays for his former teammates — is one in a million.

The ultimate example of the junior linebacker’s selfless approach occurred last spring, when Maybin asked to switch from jersey No. 34 to No. 21.

“The thing about me is, I play football for the people around me — my people back home, my friends and my family,” Maybin said. “I like to make others proud when they see me. Wearing 21 is a shout-out to my former teammate, Riyahd Jones. He was here two years – never did really play much — but he always wanted to make that 21 shine. When he decided to give it up I decided to make 21 shine for him.”

When told of Maybin’s kind-hearted gesture, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen was not at all surprised.

“He’s really a neat kid. He’s different, for sure,” Thigpen said. “He’s an only child — he and his mom are really tight – so he’s an unselfish kid who probably looks at his teammates as his brothers. He really has a genuine love for the guys on this football team. He talks to guys as if they are tight-knit.”

Fellow Vols recognize and value Maybin’s dedication to the team. He might be the most well-liked and well-respected player on the Big Orange roster.

“You appreciate the approach, the level of intensity and the level of intelligence the young man has,” Thigpen said. “We just have to make sure we keep him pushing to be great.”

That shouldn’t be a problem. Maybin has been pushing himself to be great for years. Lacking superior size and speed, he worked hard to develop the intangibles needed to offset his shortcomings.

“I never was the fastest or the biggest guy, so I always used my head to stay ahead of everyone,” he said. “I try to pick up on the tendencies, pick up on little things the offense does, to try and help me play a little bit faster.”

He succeeded. Though too small to play linebacker and too slow to play safety, he carved a niche on special teams as a freshman in 2013, leading all Vols with 11 coverage tackles. That was five more than the runnerup.

When he wasn’t putting return specialists on their backs, Maybin was putting weights on his shoulders in a determined bid to get bigger and stronger. Having bulked up from 202 pounds to 230, he blossomed in 2014. Moving from safety to weakside linebacker, he started all 13 games, leading the 2014 Vols in tackles (101) and fumble recoveries (2). He also registered 11 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, an interception and a hurry.

Routinely playing his best in the biggest games, he posted a career-high 13 stops in Tennessee’s TaxSlayer Bowl defeat of Iowa. He also put up big numbers at Georgia (10 stops, 3.5 tackles for loss), at Oklahoma (9 tackles, fumble recovery), versus Florida (9 stops), at Ole Miss (9 stops), at South Carolina (8 stops, 1 TFL) and versus Missouri (7 stops, 1 TFL).

Maybin’s productivity is a testament to film study. He spends so much time analyzing opposing offenses that he often knows what play is coming before the ball is snapped.

“I’d say probably 90 percent of the time — just from looking at formations, splits and things like that,” he said. “It helps you to realize what the offense is going to try to do and how they’re going to try and attack you.”

Maybin also has developed a knack for sensing defensive coordinator John Jancek’s mindset based on the defense he calls.

“When Jancek calls something in, Maybin already knows what the defensive coordinator is thinking,” Thigpen said. “With a certain call he’s thinking, ‘OK, Coach Jancek is thinking pass, so I need to be a little softer in the run fit.’”

With football played at a hectic pace these days, a quick mind is just as valuable as quick feet. Thigpen says few minds are quicker than Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s:

“Maybin always knows the situation: Where are we on the field – red zone, green zone, black zone? What’s the personnel on the field? What’s the call? What’s the formation? What down is it? Is it third and one, second and eight? Was the pass complete on first down? What’s the second-down thinking?”

Processing all of this ever-changing information is difficult, especially when you’re simultaneously trying to fight off 320-pound blockers, trying to tackle NFL-caliber running backs and trying to run with speedy receivers as 100,000 screaming fans watch your every move.

“It seems like he doesn’t get tired,” sophomore linebacker Cortez McDowell said. “He’s always vocal. He’s always willing to compete. He always gives that extra effort that the coaches are talking to us about. I know the guys in the (linebacker) room are definitely thankful to have him just because of his effort and everything he brings.”

Maybin isn’t Superman, so he gets tired just like any other player. The difference is that he can dig down and find enough energy in reserve to keep his body and his mind operating in sync.

“Guys get gassed going up and down the field and sometimes lose sight of the situation,” Thigpen said. “For a guy like Maybin to process all he does with a cool mind, break it down and slow the game down … those are the kind of football players you’re looking for. He’s really cerebral.”

In addition to cerebral, Maybin is becoming increasingly vocal. Though shy by nature, he began asserting himself when star middle linebacker A.J. Johnson was dismissed from the team with two games left in the 2014 regular season.

“That’s exactly when it started,” Maybin said. “After A.J. left I knew the whole team was looking for somebody to step up. It usually comes from the linebacker position, so I just stepped into that role.”

Minus its four-year starter at middle linebacker, Tennessee’s defense faced a crossroads. Maybin helped avert a crisis, however, by stepping into the leadership void created by Johnson’s dismissal.

“I just did a lot more talking,” he recalled. “When A.J. was out there he was the loudest person out there. That was his job – to be the Mike, the quarterback of the defense. I just had to make sure everyone was good. I used to just say my assignment; now I speak to everybody on the field.”

Thigpen says Maybin’s transformation has been nothing short of amazing.

“When he first got here, he never communicated,” the Vol aide recalled. “He was the quiet guy in the room … never said much. Now he is The Guy. He’s what we call the Alpha Male in the room. He knows how to get after some guys and he knows that some guys have a problem with it (confrontation). He’s the guy that, when I get on ‘em (other linebackers), he goes to the sideline and brings ‘em back up.”

Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is one of the Vols defense's leaders.
(Danny Parker/

In addition to his newfound communication skills, Maybin exhibits considerable coaching skills. Blessed with an off-the-charts football IQ, he excels at explaining complex defensive concepts so that his young teammates can grasp them.

“He’s invaluable,” head coach Butch Jones said following the Orange & White game. “He knows all of the linebacker spots. He brings an energy about himself. He has great instincts, and he’s becoming one of our leaders on defense and one of our leaders on this football team.”

Fortunately for the Vols, Maybin is directing much of his leadership at Tennessee’s young defenders.

“He has helped me a lot,” freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland said. “He's my big brother in our big brother/little brother program, and he's helped me a lot just by teaching me tips, quick things to learn. He's been very vocal in my development so far."

Redshirt freshman linebacker Dillon Bates echoes those thoughts, noting that Maybin is “a smart, instinctive player. He knows where everybody on the field belongs. If you make some type of mistake he'll correct you right then and there."

Naturally, this knack has really endeared Maybin to his position coach.

“For me, he’s like having a coach on the field, another coach in the meeting room,” Thigpen said. “He has a leadership quality and a really good football mind. When bad things happen, he fixes guys on the field so that we don’t have to wait till they get to the sidelines after an eight- or nine-play series to adjust it. He can do it on the field himself. That’s the greatest thing about him.”

Maybin is so knowledgeable of Tennessee’s defense that he could play any of the three linebackers spots – Will (weak side), Sam (strong side) or Mike (middle).

“Right now I’m just at the Will but I know I have to know everything (about the other positions) just in case things go bad or we need an extra guy somewhere,” he said. “I’m smart enough to handle multiple things. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can, learn the whole defense.”

Once Johnson was dismissed last November, Maybin helped make the defensive calls, a chore normally reserved for the middle linebacker.

“Mostly, I was echoing the calls,” he said. “We only have one voice on the defense, and the Mike has to do it. If it came down to it, though, I could do it.”

Asked if he thinks Maybin could handle making the defensive calls, Thigpen paused thoughtfully.

“If he trained for it,” his position coach said. “It probably would take him a week or so.”

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