KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- On a Tennessee team loaded with freshmen and sophomores, defensive end Ben Martin sticks out a bit.
"I call him Father Time," fellow lineman Malik Jackson quipped. "He's got 20 years of college experience under his belt. He teaches us how to act like a 38-year-old man."
It's a bit of an exaggeration, but at 23 years old, the fifth-year senior is older than most of his teammates. But he's earned their respect by quietly working his way back from a pair of Achilles' tendon injuries.
He's listed as a starter for the Volunteers season opener against Montana on Saturday. Just over a year ago, Martin was preparing for what he thought would be his final season at Tennessee.
He was supposed to help anchor a defensive line that was somewhat low on depth, but that changed when his left tendon ruptured on the second day of fall camp and needed surgery.
He suffered the same injury to the right Achilles' tendon in a February workout and again needed surgery, leaving the Cincinnati native wondering if he'd ever return to football.
"It was tough to be part of the team but you can't help them in the way that you want to help them by being out there and competing," Martin said. "You kind of lose your identity and lose who you are because you've been a football player for so long and to be a regular guy, it's different."
That means he's not taking any moment on the field for granted.
"I'm just happy to be out here playing with these guys," Martin said.
Derek Dooley is happy to have him on the field, too, but he doesn't want to jinx the injury-prone defensive end.
"So far -- knock on wood -- he's where we want him to be, and I think he's going to help us," Dooley said.
The time away from practice gave Martin a lot of extra hours in the weight room around rehabilitation sessions. He added about 15
pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame and is up to about 265 pounds.
That extra size is a boost to a defensive line that was decidedly undersized last season for a Southeastern Conference schedule that's packed with massive offensive linemen and talented running backs. Martin has been harder to move and found it easier to maintain his gaps during fall camp.
"That was our problem, especially when we play those two-back
teams and we need some more beef," Dooley said. "He's just a
harder guy to block. The bigger they are, the harder they are to block and move. He brings something we didn't have last year."
Martin started 11 of 13 games as a junior during the 2009 season
and logged 38 tackles --4.5 for a loss -- 3.5 sacks and two forced
fumbles that year. Even with that experience and his extra heft, it
took him about two weeks this month to get his football legs back
"Right now I feel pretty good," he said. "I've been keeping up with the trainers, getting a lot of treatment and just trying to get ready for the season and get ready for game week."
Martin knows that no matter how he's feeling he can always help
bring the younger guys along. Martin and Jackson will be joined by
sophomores Daniel Hood, Jacques Smith, Maurice Couch, Corey Miller and Marlon Walls, among other players.
"(Leadership) is something that is important to me, just talking to the younger guys or pulling them aside if they have a rough pass rush or a rough down," Martin said. "I just tell them to forget that play, let's move on to the next one and let's go."