Dooley brings on the noise for the Vols
Tennessee freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt haven't changed much ever since it became clear that they both would be starting at linebacker to open the season, and that's exactly the way their coaches like it.
That's how they vaulted up the depth chart in the first place.
"They've got a real steady demeanor about them," coach Derek Dooley said Wednesday. "I hope they can maintain that once the battles begin."
When Maggitt and Johnson trot on to the field for the first defensive snaps of their respective college careers against Montana on Saturday (TV: pay-per-view, 6 p.m.), they'll provide a double shot of UT history. Since 1972, when freshmen eligibility was reinstated, no UT true freshman has ever started at linebacker in a season opener.
Peter Sirmon, who will be coaching his first game as UT's linebackers coach Saturday, didn't see what the big deal was. It's simply an amalgamation of Maggitt's and Johnson's respective talent levels, the Vols' low number of veterans and an overall trend in college football that has prompted more and more freshmen to see the field, he said.
"We've made a concerted effort here to be what we consider freshman-friendly to make sure the best players are on the field and put them in a position to help our team," Sirmon said. "This is kind of what Coach (Justin) Wilcox's philosophy is about — getting the best guys on the field — and we'll see how they perform."
Both Sirmon and Dooley cited the duo's ability to overcome a mistake and never make it again as a reason why they've risen to the top and stayed there. That's why they're two of just three true freshmen, joining cornerback Justin Coleman, who will start Saturday.
"It's what you want from most young players, and it gives you an early indicator of how quickly they can progress and how high their ceiling is going to be," Dooley said. "What concerns you a lot is when the guys are making the same mistakes over and over and over. You get a little concerned about their ability to survive, their survival skills.
"They haven't shown that, so it's a good thing."
Middle linebacker Austin Johnson said he will be there if Maggitt or A.J. Johnson need him. Sirmon, though, would prefer the senior to worry about his own responsibilities while the freshmen figure everything out by themselves.
"Austin's role, in my opinion, is not to line up everybody on the field," Sirmon said. "I want him to be vocal. If those guys don't get lined up, it's not Austin's responsibility to go over there and move them and tell them what to do every play.
"They're going to be starting in the SEC, and they've got to practice like it and they've got to have the accountability that it requires. I don't really care what age they are."
Still Time: Izauea Lanier is big for a cornerback and he played nothing but safety last year at East Mississippi Community College.
With Janzen Jackson dismissed from the team and freshman Pat Martin seeking a transfer, Lanier remains a possible candidate to swap spots in the defensive backfield.
Neither Dooley nor secondary coach Terry Joseph completely ruled out that possibility, but they both assured Lanier would stay at cornerback for Saturday's game.
"It's something we might take a look at," Joseph said. "We're going to see how it goes through the season and it's good we've got some spread teams back to back, so we'll see how it goes."
Noise Violation: Everything from Guns N' Roses to Bob Marley blared over the loudspeakers at Wednesday's practice, as UT prepared for the crowd noise that will engulf Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Dooley wasn't exactly thrilled with how the Vols handled the distraction.
"We had a lot of rat-trapping," Dooley said. "Made a lot of mistakes. A lot of the noise gets you thinking. Good thing we've got another day to try to polish it up. Went out there and tried to create a little chaos for the young guys, and that's what it looked like.
"That's why we have an extra day, and hopefully we can polish it up."
With a starting lineup that will boast three freshmen on defense and eight sophomores on offense, Dooley said he wasn't surprised by the "chaos."
"It's that line," he said. "You don't get disappointed if you (don't) expect them to come out there and be perfect when the crowd noise hits. I knew what would happen."
Seen In Red: Wide receiver Justin Hunter wore a red, non-contact jersey as a precautionary measure at Wednesday's practice.
Dooley did not specify why Hunter needed the extra protection, but stressed that it was nothing serious.
Game-Time Decision: Special teams coach Eric Russell said no decision has been made about who will catch punts Saturday.
Wide receiver Anthony Anderson and freshman running back Marlin Lane are the two remaining candidates.
"I think we've got a pretty good feel for them," Russell said. "Now it's how they're going to react come game time when the lights are on."