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Lance Thompson isn't the easiest Tennessee coach to impress.
During the past few decades, from stop to stop, Thompson has coached future NFL players. Recently at Alabama, he supervised a linebacking corps that included Rolando McClain, the eighth pick in the 2009 NFL draft, and Dont'a Hightower, an All-SEC first teamer.
None of that was able to temper Thompson's praise for UT freshman Curt Maggitt, who has equally wowed his teammates, other assistant coaches and even head coach Derek Dooley.
"I will tell you this," Thompson said Sunday at UT's media day at Neyland Stadium. "Everybody knew this kid was a special talent, but in 25 years of coaching, this kid is an elite freshman."
In two scrimmages, Maggitt has worked primarily with the first-team defense and hasn't wavered from the pressure. Following a three-tackle debut Tuesday, Maggitt was all over the field Saturday, but spent most of his time in the offense's backfield, as 4.5 of his six tackles went for a loss.
Maggitt saved his best for the last play of the scrimmage, peeling around the end to net his second sack of the day.
"He does have a skill set that is pretty incredible," linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said. "He's got length, he's got some fast-twitch, really good change of direction. The big thing with him having success right now is he's very into football, the game makes sense to him, he's getting aligned right, he's done a good job of not making the same mistake.
"His learning curve has been a lot more rapid than I anticipated."
Maggitt was a four-star outside linebacker at Dwyer High in West Palm Beach, Fla., but was listed as a defensive end when UT announced his signing in February. Because the Vols are low on depth at both of those positions, Maggitt has been asked to pull double duty.
He's all but penciled as the Vols' starting strongside linebacker, but will set up on the end of the defensive line during obvious passing downs in the Vols' nickel package.
"We're trying to use our players in any way we can to win a ball game," Sirmon said. "If there are situations where Curt needs to go rush the quarterback, then he's going to make everybody better. If he needs to go play some linebacker, he'll do that as well.
"(Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) will handle when he plays and where he plays, so I just coach him up when I'm supposed to have him."
Thompson said "it's not hard stuff" when it comes to the decision of slotting Maggitt on the defensive line for obvious passing situations because of his "speed, quickness, agility and FBI — football intelligence." For a unit that mustered two sacks per game — a total that dipped significantly against SEC teams — and is currently low on size and bodies, Maggitt and the presence he is expected to provide will open up opportunities for players such as Jacques Smith, Malik Jackson and Ben Martin to make plays, Thompson said.
"You're going to have to have a plan for that guy, because he's a special guy coming off the edge," Thompson said. "Curt doesn't do things right 100 percent of the time. But his athleticism, his initial quickness and acceleration are really elite in college football."
Wilcox said he hasn't tried to make things easier for Maggitt or fellow freshman A.J. Johnson, who also has been impressive through the first two weeks of camp at outside linebacker and is in line for serious playing time.
Mistakes are common and there are moments when both players reaffirm their status as freshmen, but the positives have certainly outweighed the negatives.
"They've done a really good job. We're really happy with where they're going," Wilcox said. "We're pouring it all in.
"Just in terms of how quick they're picking it up and the way they're playing against some good players, against the ones, it's encouraging for us."