Mission made Mapu a man

He gained roughly 30 pounds during his two-year hiatus from Tennessee football on a mission for the Mormon Church, yet J.T. Mapu's growth as a person was even more pronounced.

He saw homes and property destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He saw families displaced and lives changed forever. Helping clear the wreckage in 2004 and 2005 was a sobering experience, one that made him grow up in a hurry.

J.T. Mapu believes that added maturity will serve him well as a senior defensive tackle for the Vols this fall. Aware that life can change in an instant, he no longer takes the pleasures of college football for granted.

"It helps me a lot. I see things a lot different now," he said recently. "Before I would come to the weight room for workouts and just get through them. Now I see how I can use each lift to help me in the games. Little things like that.

"When you get older, you see a lot of things you overlooked when you were younger. And you listen to the coach better than you did before."

Mapu was a quiet sophomore when he left UT in the spring of 2004. He's a lot more talkative now that the mission has altered his perspective. That should help him be a more vocal leader for the '07 Vols.

"Compared to before, I do talk a lot now," he said. "But I really don't talk a lot down on the field. The thing I try to do is lead by example. Hopefully, they'll see and try to follow."

To date, the younger Vols seem to be following Mapu's example.

"I feel the respect that I'm given … just being the older guy," he said. "They come to me for advice and stuff. I think they're following along."

Clearly rusty after a two-year layoff from football, Mapu was a shadow of his former self last fall. He recorded just four tackles, four assists and one quarterback hurry in a reserve role. Now that he's had a year to return to football shape, he believes he's ready for a big senior season.

"I feel I'm right back where I left off, I really do," he said. "I feel really great. I feel like my body is conditioned and ready to go. I'm a whole different person than I was last year.

"I'm a lot stronger than I was in 2003. When I first moved from defensive end to tackle I was 265 pounds. By the middle of the year I was up to 285, and that's where I'm at right now."

In addition to being back physically, Mapu believes he is even better mentally than he was before his mission.

"The big difference in me is my knowledge of the game," he said. "I know different things I can do, different things I can't do. I know the techniques, the Xs and Os."

Minus its top three tackles from 2006 – Justin Harrell, Turk McBride and Matt McGlothlinTennessee is counting on a breakout season from Mapu this fall. He believes he's ready to deliver one.

"I feel real comfortable," he said. "I was watching some tapes of the '03 season, and I feel I'm back to where I was at that point, except a lot stronger. I'm hoping for big things this season."

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