KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The leader of Tennessee's football team is a guy who didn't play at all last year.
Junior linebacker Curt Maggitt tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in November 2012. His last appearance in a game precedes second-year coach Butch Jones' arrival on campus.
But that hasn't stopped Maggitt from making an impact.
"He's our leader," Jones said. "He's the one who has everyone's respect. When Curt Maggitt talks, everybody listens."
Jones has described Maggitt as the heart and soul of Tennessee's team. Maggitt, who says he's finally back at full strength, now wants to be described as a playmaker.
"I'm feeling better and better," Maggitt said.
Maggitt started each of his first two seasons at Tennessee and developed a reputation as one of the defense's top big-play performers, but he battled a variety of injuries his sophomore year. He was having arguably his best game of the 2012 season against Missouri when he tore his ACL.
The injury sidelined him longer than he expected.
During the start of preseason camp last August, Maggitt indicated he was cautiously optimistic he'd be ready for the start of the season. As it turned out, he never played at all. By midseason, Maggitt and Jones agreed a redshirt was the best option for him.
"I was really trying to feel it out in the first three to four games and I just didn't feel like myself," Maggitt said. "I think probably the fourth or fifth game, I sat down and talked with Coach Jones. That's the hardest decision I've made."
Maggitt still found a way to contribute, though, whether he was encouraging teammates on Saturdays or practicing alongside them on weekdays.
"I feel like the guys know that I love the game," Maggitt said. "It's not a show. I truly enjoy being here at the complex, and I truly love Tennessee. Even though I wasn't on the field physically, I was on the sideline in away games, on the scout team. I gave my all."
Maggitt's willingness to do whatever he could to help the program while injured earned him the everlasting respect of his teammates.
"Ever since I got here, the day I stepped onto campus, I felt Curt's leadership role," sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen said. "It was very inspiring. Every day you'd come in, Curt has a good attitude. He's always pushing guys. It was very nice to see that. It helped me as a person."
Senior defensive end Jordan Williams said Maggitt's leadership has been particularly apparent since the end of last season.
"When he came back this offseason, he just attacked it," Williams said. "Every day, he was the vocal guy, in the weight room, in team meetings, making sure everyone's following the details."
Now he's ready to help out in a more tangible manner.
Although he hasn't played in over a year, Maggitt still has the most career forced fumbles (3) and the second-most tackles for loss (10 ½) of anyone on Tennessee's roster. He should team up with all-Southeastern Conference selection A.J. Johnson to give Tennessee a potent linebacker tandem.
Maggitt's return should provide an immediate boost for a defense that has produced the fewest sacks in the SEC each of the last two years. The Volunteers believe he's the type of player versatile enough to drop into pass coverage or line up in a three-point stance and rush the passer.
After spending so much time off the field, Maggitt's ready to fill any role that's needed of him.
"I'm down to do whatever," Maggitt said. "I want to get to that quarterback, though."