Curt Maggitt sat in a spacious room inside The Hyatt Regency in Hoover, Ala., for SEC Media Days last Tuesday dressed in a sleek blue suit and orange tie. Smiling courteously without pads on, the 6-foot-3, 246-pound hybrid linebacker/defensive end still looked like the most imposing figure in the room.
It’s always been that way, really, for a guy who — alongside A.J. Johnson — became the first true freshman to ever start a game at linebacker for Tennessee. Maggitt came to Knoxville amidst the second year of the Derek Dooley era and withstood Dooley’s subsequent ouster after his second season and a redshirt in 2013 to recover from offseason surgery during the coaching change to Butch Jones.
The player who became a Vol to help spark a change in the program was suddenly thrust in the middle of the most turnaround in modern Tennessee football history.
“When I was getting recruited, I was thinking I know, traditionally, no SEC team is usually down that long. I was looking to be a part of that turnaround,” Maggitt said. “It was kind of weird, my mind [and] my thought process going into it, but everything happens for a reason. I don’t question it.”
The rising redshirt senior survived, though, as did the rest of his team, as they inched toward progress under Jones. After missing the entire previous season, Maggitt exploded onto the scene in 2014 to help lead Tennessee to its first winning record since 2009. His 11 sacks coming off the edge were good for 12th-best in the country, and his 15 tackles for loss tied him for fifth-most in the SEC.
Maggitt also earned All-SEC honors despite going 659 days between games played since his season-ending ACL injury.
The former Scout four-star recruit lived up to his hype, and he did it while jockeying between putting his hand in the dirt at defensive end and standing up at linebacker when Tennessee went to its 4-3 package.
“I’m comfortable in both roles,” he said. “This past season, I’ve got a lot more reps and more experience. I enjoy it. I enjoy doing both roles.”
Maggitt also benefited from playing alongside one of the most electrifying freshman defensive ends in recent memory. Derek Barnett set Tennessee freshman records for sacks (10) and tackles for loss (20.5). The two combined for 21 total sacks and served as a powerful one-two punch coming off the edge for the Vols.
“A lot of really good pass rushers, they usually got someone on the other side of them that can help them out or they can feed off of,” Maggitt said. “Me and Barnett, we’re eye-to-eye. We learn from each other. He helps me out. I help him out. I’m excited for this season and I love playing with him.”
Both players have helped skyrocket the Vols’ expectations in 2015 as potential All-America candidates bookending an unbelievably young and talented defensive line.
Maggitt coming back for his senior season injected even more positive vibes in a program surrounded by growing hype. His return, along with the emergence of Joshua Dobbs as a legit SEC quarterback star, an improved rushing attack and a staunch secondary, has made Tennessee a popular pick to contend for the SEC Eastern Division.
Those expectations fall in line with what the Vols are working to accomplish in 2015, as detailed by the guy who is leading the charge. Last season, the goal was to win a bowl game. This year, Maggitt knows Tennessee wants more.
“A bowl game is definitely on the list. That’s for sure, but we want to go beyond that. We’re training even harder and with a bigger mindset, just because we have so many people back,” he said.
“So now, let’s take it a step further. What’s the next step from that? It’s going to be a challenging season. [We want to] win every game we can, starting with our first game and just being focused and get it done.”