Austin Johnson was back in his comfort zone Tuesday, situated in the heart of the defense at middle linebacker for Tennessee's first scrimmage of the fall.
For parts of the practice, Johnson was flanked by two players whose last Neyland Stadium football experience came on a recruiting trip — freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
A lack of chemistry and togetherness would have been understandable, but Johnson saw no such thing.
"They know what they are doing," Johnson said. "They have picked up on it really quickly. We are all working together as a unit."
Johnson, who was back at his old position after a brief stint at outside linebacker, wasn't the only one who saw it that way.
Coach Derek Dooley, who levied criticism on nearly every facet of the program after Tuesday's scrimmage, was left speechless — in a positive way — when it pertained to A.J. Johnson and Maggitt.
"It's hard to say any bad things," Dooley said. "Those guys are big and physical. They're playing fast and aggressive. They just bring a presence that we have not had at the linebacker position."
Dooley said both Johnson and Maggitt worked with the first-team defense Tuesday. Statistically, the duo appeared to make the most of their respective opportunities, as Maggitt finished with three tackles, which tied for third-best on the team, and Johnson added two tackles, one of which went for a 1-yard loss.
Christian Harris, another one of UT's freshman linebackers, finished with three tackles, one of which also went for a 1-yard loss.
Because of UT's lack of depth and experience in its linebacking corps, all three players, especially Maggitt and Johnson, are expected to contribute as soon as the season opener against Montana.
"We're so used to playing freshmen around here, we don't know what it's like not to have to get a freshman ready to play at a position," Dooley said. "We've gotten pretty good at it, I guess."
The size of both Johnson and Maggitt make blending in just a little easier. Actually, among a group of largely undersized linebackers, it forces them to stick out a bit.
Maggitt, who could work on the defensive line in the future, is listed at 215 pounds, but has clearly surpassed that figure. Johnson, meanwhile, came to school already at 245 pounds, which makes him the heaviest linebacker on the team.
"I know those guys can keep improving and grow into great players," Austin Johnson said. "I think that's what's going to happen. We just have to keep growing from this performance today."
Not So Special: Dooley wasn't exactly pleased with the performance of his specialists after Tuesday's scrimmage.
Though all four of his kickoffs sailed past the 5-yard line, kicker Michael Palardy made just one of his three field-goal attempts, a 37-yarder. Punter Matt Darr struggled with consistency and finished with an average of 41 yards per attempt.
Dooley said he and special teams coach Eric Russell aren't working Palardy, who dealt with a nagging quadriceps injury during the spring, nearly as hard as in the past. Darr, meanwhile, is still learning "the art of punting" as a redshirt freshman.
"He's going to go out there and boom some and he's going to go out there and not boom some, shank some," Dooley said. "He'll get there."
Talking About It: Dooley wouldn't go into specifics, but said there have been "a lot of discussions" about what to do with the opening at left guard.
On the depth chart provided by UT at the start of camp, redshirt sophomore JerQuari Schofield and freshman Marcus Jackson were listed as co-starters. But the emergence of transfer Alex Bullard as a potential starting center could add James Stone to the mix as well.
"It's not where we want it yet. That's all I can tell you," Dooley said. "We'll probably look at some personnel, like we will at a lot of positions. This is a good time to shuffle some guys around."
A Secondary Matter: The shakeout in UT's crowded secondary has yet to occur, but freshman cornerback Justin Coleman provided the biggest statistical feat Tuesday, picking up the scrimmage's only interception.
Because the Vols are set to play plenty of nickel this season, Dooley is looking for the "best five" from the group.
"It's a lot of guys out there mixing it up," junior Prentiss Waggner said. "We're just trying to be versatile in the back end and add that depth and get help wherever it's needed."