KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Since they cracked Tennessee's starting lineup as freshmen three years ago, A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt have been among the most recognizable faces of Tennessee's defense.
But they haven't had the chance to play together much lately.
While Johnson has developed into an all-Southeastern Conference linebacker, Maggitt hasn't played at all since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on November 2012. That finally changes Sunday when Maggitt returns to action as Tennessee hosts Utah State in its season opener.
''It's going to be emotional for sure,'' Maggitt said. ''It's been a real long time since I've been out there and ran through the 'T' and actually suited up. I guess I'm no longer a cheerleader.''
Tennessee needs Johnson and Maggitt to anchor an inexperienced defense as the Vols attempt to end a string of four straight losing seasons.
Johnson is the only player on Tennessee's defensive front seven who started more than three games last season. Although Maggitt didn't play last year, coaches and teammates often refer to him as a team leader.
''Everyone knows Curt and A.J. are two of the biggest leaders on the team,'' sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. ''Everyone knows we can look to those guys and they're always going to be doing the right thing. Whenever someone's out of line, we know those guys will get us right.''
The friendship between the two teammates formed when both Maggitt and Johnson began their college careers atop Tennessee's depth chart. Tennessee officials say Maggitt and Johnson are believed to be the first true freshman linebackers ever to start a season opener for the Vols. Maggitt will be alternating between defensive end and linebacker this season.
''One thing we did, we had a good motor and we went hard each play,'' Johnson said. ''I feel like that's where it grew, just knowing both of us were going to go hard. (When) you've got somebody beside you that you know is going to go just as hard as you and push you, your bond gets closer and you become like brothers.
''It's more than (becoming) like brothers. We are brothers.''
Both had productive freshman seasons, but their paths diverged from there. While Johnson made 138 tackles his sophomore year to rank fourth among all Football Bowl Subdivision players, Maggitt had a case of turf toe that limited his effectiveness. Maggitt played hurt before tearing his ACL during an overtime loss to Missouri.
After redshirting last season, Maggitt's ready to return. Although he missed a week of training camp with an ankle injury, Maggitt says he's feeling fine now.
''He adds a full other element to our defense, and we are going to need that,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''Even though he hasn't played in a year, the leadership, intangibles and calmness that he has will be extremely beneficial for us defensively.''
Maggitt's return boosts a defense that has recorded the fewest sacks in the SEC each of the last two seasons. Maggitt is generally considered Tennessee's top big-play threat on defense. Lining up at defensive end should give him more opportunities to pressure the passer.
Tennessee also got a major lift when Johnson opted to return for his senior season rather than entering the draft. Johnson said he came back to school to earn his degree and to help Tennessee start winning again.
Johnson could boost his draft stock in his senior year by improving his big-play ability. Johnson's career statistics include 324 tackles but only one sack and no interceptions.
Having Maggitt around should help in that regard. When they're on the field together, each benefits from the other's presence.
''We both want to get to the ball,'' Maggitt said. ''It's weird. We've both got this chemistry where if I line up in front of him, he's going to feed off of me. We connect, and we're going to make plays together. We're going to have fun.''