AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt is cautiously optimistic that he will be ready for the start of the season as he comes back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Maggitt said he will be brought along slowly when Tennessee opens training camp Friday. Maggitt was held out of spring workouts after tearing the ligament Nov. 9 against Missouri, capping a frustrating season in which he also battled a toe injury and a shoulder stinger.
"The past two weeks I've made some big gains," Maggitt said. "I don't know what this next month has in store for me, but I just take it day by day and be positive."
The last year has tested Maggitt's positive attitude.
Maggitt and teammate A.J. Johnson were considered the rising young stars of Tennessee's defense two years ago. They were the first true freshman linebackers to start a season opener for Tennessee since the NCAA made freshmen eligible in 1972.
Johnson recorded 80 tackles that year to rank second on the team. Maggitt's 56 tackles in 2011 represented the fourth-highest total ever for a Tennessee true freshman.
But their paths diverged last season.
Johnson had 138 tackles and ranked fourth among all Football Bowl Subdivision players with 11.5 tackles per game, but Maggitt's production dipped as he struggled with injuries. Maggitt said he couldn't recall a single game last year that he played at full strength.
"I was pretty banged up the whole way," Maggitt said.
Maggitt missed a Sept. 8 victory over Georgia State with a toe injury. He spent much of the season dealing with a shoulder problem. Maggitt was having one of his best games of the year against Missouri before he tore his ACL in the Volunteers' 51-48, four-overtime loss.
Without Maggitt at full strength, Tennessee went 5-7 and gave up the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any Southeastern Conference team. Maggitt finished with 30 tackles in nine games.
"It's definitely frustrating knowing the amount of ability we had as a team," Maggitt said. "It was hard losing games that were so close and us not doing well as a defense and me not being able to give my all. I gave my all, but not physically. It was tough and mentally draining."
Tennessee needs a healthy Maggitt as it attempts to end a string of three straight losing seasons. Maggitt is aiming to be ready for the Aug. 31 season opener against Austin Peay, though he won't say exactly how close he is to full strength.
"I don't put a percent on it," Maggitt said. "I'm feeling good. I'm feeling better. Every day I'm getting better."
Tennessee coach Butch Jones knows he will "have to be patient" with Maggitt during training camp, but he also understands how much of a difference the junior linebacker could make.
"I learned very early on in being here that Curt is one of our leaders on this football team," Jones said. "It's hard to be a leader when you're not in the fray with your teammates. It was hard on him staying back in the spring, but he still led. He's the one that's leading our football team. He's one of our leaders. I'm excited to get him back on the field. I do think we have to be patient with him."
Maggitt said he's benefited from the guidance of an older sibling and a former teammate.
His older brother, Roosevelt Maggitt, played defensive end at Iowa State and also had to come back from an ACL injury. Maggitt said his brother told him what to expect in his own rehabilitation.
"It's been a lot of help," Maggitt said. "Growing up, he was my role model."
Maggitt also talks just about every day to former Vols linebacker Herman Lathers, the emotional leader of last year's Tennessee defense. Lathers also dealt with plenty of injury problems throughout his college career and missed the entire 2011 season with a fractured ankle. Maggitt said Lathers taught him to stay positive and that "God gives his toughest battles to his toughest soldiers."
"No matter what day it is, he's always smiling and has the same mindset, to just get better every day," Maggitt said. "I learned a lot from him on and off the field."
Maggitt now wants to help fill the leadership void created by Lathers' departure.
"Being around him so much, I learned so much from him," Maggitt said. "I know what we need as a team. We need someone who's going to step up at times and get guys in order and get guys in line. I want that to be me."
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