Byron Moore and Daniel Hood on the 45-0 win against Austin Peay
Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt has spent most of the Butch Jones era in green — the jersey color reserved for players who are rehabbing injuries or barred from contact.
On Tuesday, Maggitt joined the rest of his teammates in orange, and he could be in position to do the same Saturday against Western Kentucky. Jones said Maggitt’s return to practice represented a “significant” step forward in his recovery from offseason ACL surgery.
Jones didn’t confirm that Maggitt would play when the Vols (1-0) face the Hilltoppers (1-0) at Neyland Stadium (TV: MyVLT, 12:21 p.m.). But Maggitt went through practice without limitations.
“We’ll see how he progresses throughout the course of the week to see if he’s game ready by Saturday,” Jones said.
As for how Maggitt did in practice, Jones said he “made his presence felt.”
Maggitt would join A.J. Johnson in what the Vols hope will be an imposing linebacking corps.
A native of West Palm Beach, Fla., Maggitt started alongside Johnson when both were freshmen in 2011. He battled a toe injury last year and then sprained his ACL in the season’s second-to-last game.
The recovery from the injury has been slower than expected, but could be nearing an end.
“Curt brings a lot of energy to practice, to the team, whether he’s in green, orange, yellow or red,” said redshirt freshman defensive end LaTroy Lewis. “It was exciting to see him out there.”
Maggitt might not be the only Vol returning soon. Defensive ends Jacques Smith (thumb) and Corey Vereen (knee) are on pace in their rehabs.
Vereen won’t play against WKU, but might be ready a week later against Oregon. Jones said Smith would have the screws removed from his thumb this week, and his return shouldn’t be long after that.
It’s unclear how coaches plan to use Maggitt, who hasn’t gone through a single practice since Jones became coach last December.
Maggitt has the size to be a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and coaches might be creative to maximize his snaps. In nickel (five defensive back) sets, Tennessee frequently uses only two linebackers. Seniors Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer are currently starting with Johnson.
Jones even offered another wrinkle on Tuesday night that might give Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino something to think about.
Johnson worked out of the Wildcat package in short-yardage situations last year. Jones said Maggitt could be an option on offensive as well.
For good measure, he also mentioned Alton “Pig” Howard and Justin Coleman as Wildcat quarterback options.
Is this merely gamesmanship? Perhaps.
But judging by the reaction of teammates, Maggitt’s return seems very real.
“It is a big boost,” said running back Rajion Neal. “Curt is a part of this team. He’s been a part of us for three years now. We’ve all played with him and know his style of play and we miss him. We can’t wait for him to get back out there and contribute.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him on Twitter.