Maggitt Loss A Big One For Tennessee

SS FOOTBALL VIEWS GRAPHICTennessee coach Butch Jones today revealed the injury that took Curt Maggitt from the field last Saturday is a chipped bone in his hip.  The hybrid linebacker/defensive end, according to Jones, will be out indefinitely.  Could be six weeks, could be 10.

That’s a senior lost.

That’s THE team leader lost.

And that’s a helluva football player lost.

At least for a while.  Just a few weeks ago, Jones made it sound as if safety LaDarrell McNeil would be lucky to ever play again, but now he’s set to return to the field.  Still, without truly inside info on Maggitt, we have to take the coach’s word for it… and the word isn’t good.

By the time Maggitt left the game versus Oklahoma, the Vols’ defense was already missing projected starters McNeil (injured in August camp), nickelback Rashaan Gaulden (lost for the year during August camp) and defensive lineman Danny O’Brien (suspended for a violation of team rules).  That meant four starters were gone from UT’s defense before halftime of the second game of the season.  (And that’s not counting the team’s most experienced lineman on the other side of the ball, Marcus Jackson, who was also lost for the year in Fall camp.)

Before the season, those people hoping for 10 wins — insanity in my book — had to at least concede that it would take some real breaks for Tennessee to reach such lofty heights.  Breaks to bones weren’t the breaks the Vols needed.

Make no mistake, the Volunteers do have more talent on this year’s squad than at any point during Jones’ short tenure.  Trouble is, it’s mostly young and inexperienced talent serving behind the frontline starters.  For that matter, more than a few of those starters are also young.

You’re probably thinking to yourself — or screaming at your computer — that other teams get injuries, too.  And yes, of course, they do.  Take Arkansas.  With some key folks gone from the Razorbacks’ squad last week, Bret Bielema’s bunch lost to Toledo.  At home.  Jones hasn’t suffered anything comparable to date.

The fact of the matter is this: Alabama and Auburn and Georgia and LSU can more easily afford to lose bodies because they’ve been signing top 10 recruiting classes for about 10 years now.  They have depth and many of the players making up that depth have experience.

Jones and crew have inked three good classes in a row.  Three.  And Derek Dooley’s recruiting didn’t exactly leave the current UT coach a conveyor belt of talent.  Them’s just the facts.  Tennessee can’t lose bodies the way Alabama or Georgia can.

Or Oklahoma.

A quick gander at last Saturday’s participation chart reveals that Tennessee easily eclipsed Oklahoma in terms of players with no more than two years of college football experience.  (The table below counts true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and true sophomores only.)

UT and OU Players with 2 or Fewer Years of Experience

Freshmen/SophomoresTennesseeOklahoma
Starters Offense54
Starters Defense42
Backups/Special Teams1712
Total Players Used2618

Now, you can ignore those numbers, scoff at those numbers or pooh-pooh those numbers if you desire.  But that’d be a little like saying, “Don’t talk to me about gravity!”  Then stepping off the roof of your house.

You’d be setting yourself up for a fall.

Tennessee is still a greener team than most of the big-time programs the Vols will run into this season.  That means they need to stay as healthy as possible and so far they haven’t.  That’s not excuse-making, that’s reality here on planet Earth.  Doesn’t mean the Vols can’t get on some sort of astounding roll… just means it’s unlikely.  At least in my book.  And I’ve been saying so since, oh, ’bout April.

The loss of Maggitt is particularly tough.  As we discussed on Sunday’s television show, the numbers for Oklahoma’s offense became noticeably larger once Maggitt exited Shields-Watkins Field.

According to ESPN.com’s play-by-play stats from early Sunday morning, the Sooners’ success rate ballooned post-Maggitt:

With Maggitt on the field, OU ran 26 plays for just 67 yards and a miniscule 2.6 yards/play average.

With Maggitt off the field, OU ran 54 plays for 226 yards and a healthier 4.2 yards/play average.

Read ’em and weep, eh?

Last season, it can be argued, Maggitt and Derek Barnett were the two most important Tennessee defenders.  With those two rushing the passer from the edges, the Volunteers finished third in the SEC in sacks.  Maggitt had 11.  Barnett recorded 10.  Maggitt also finished fifth in the SEC with 15 tackles for loss.

Now, another Vol — Kyle Phillips, perhaps — might step right in and pull a Barnett, duplicating Maggitt’s quarterback-hurrying success as a freshman.  But can anyone count on that happening?

So far, we’ve just been talking about numbers.  But Maggitt might be missed most for the intangibles he brings.  Maggitt is the A-1, Numero Uno leader of Tennessee’s football team.  Offense and defense.  Young guys and old guys.

On Sunday, four of our VFLs — Will Overstreet, David Ligon, Daniel Hood and Jacob Gilliam — talked about the Vols’ depth issues and the importance of Maggitt.  Hood and Gilliam know his importance from first-hand experience.

So should the rest of the season be written off due to an inordinate amount of early-season injuries to important players?  No, no and no.  It’s a long season, as I wrote yesterday.  We’re just 1/6th of the way through it.

But anyone who refuses to admit that Tennessee’s youth and depth are now being exposed is whistling past the graveyard.  And setting themselves up for more disappointment and anger over the coming months.

— John Pennington

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