KNOXVILLE — Three University of Tennessee football coaching staffs in three years have wanted to get Austin Johnson more time on the field.
But in a program that’s suffered through thin rosters, Johnson has been one of the few players caught in a logjam.
Even a position change couldn’t help that. Not yet, at least.
Chattanooga’s Kevin Cooper blocked Johnson’s path for more fullback playing time the past two seasons, and now senior Nick Reveiz will probably prevent Johnson from seeing more time at middle linebacker.
“I’m just like a lot of guys out here working hard every day waiting to get in there,” Johnson said. “My time will come.”
But when that time will come and how much time it will be are fair questions. The 5-foot-10 Reveiz transformed himself from walk-on to team captain last season as a junior, and he’s proven — at least on the practice field — that he’s back in form following an ACL tear.
“I’m looking to get as much (playing time) as I can get,” Johnson said after Tuesday’s practice. “Nick is definitely the leader of our defense, and he’s someone I’m glad I’m getting mentored by. When it comes game time, we’ll just play it by ear and see how it goes. I’m definitely looking to get out there and get in on as many packages as I can.
“We’ll just see how it works out.”
If it works out that Johnson needs to play a big role, first-year UT head coach Derek Dooley wouldn’t have a problem with that.
“He’s done really well,” Dooley said. “He’s a good, solid Mike. We’re not afraid to put him in the game. I’m pleased with him.”
Johnson, a physical player at 6-2, 231 pounds, played well in a reserve role at fullback last season, delivering several big blocks and catching a 38-yard touchdown pass against South Carolina. He moved to defense before spring practice and quickly showed why he was one of the South’s best linebacker prospects at Hickory (N.C.) High School.
He was given the Andy Spiva Award as the team’s surprise defensive player after spring practice.
“Once you’re a linebacker, you’re always a linebacker,” said Vols senior defensive end Chris Walker, also who played linebacker in high school. “Austin’s come in, and he’s done a great job. He looks like a natural. He looks like he came here first as a linebacker.”
Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson said he didn’t know Johnson played linebacker in high school.
“He’s real instinctive,” Jackson said. “He looks like he’s been there before.”
A full offseason dedicated to learning coordinator Justin Wilcox’s defense hasn’t hurt Johnson in any way. Daily tips from Reveiz haven’t hurt, either.
“I don’t look at it like, ‘Austin’s coming for my job,’” Reveiz said. “I look at it like we’re just two friends and teammates trying to make each other better every day. I hope I make him better like he makes me better.”
Wilcox and linebackers coach Lance Thompson sped up Johnson’s learning curve by only asking him to learn the middle linebacker position — most of the team’s backers are asked to know two spots. Middle is by far the most challenging to learn, though, because that’s the position that usually reads offenses and makes pre-snap adjustments.
“I’m seeing me progress, definitely,” Johnson said. “I’ve become a lot more vocal out there, and I’ve definitely progressed on my defensive schemes. I’m really comfortable with myself out there. Once I got all the formations down and learned all the concepts and everything like that, it’s just small things now. I’ll miss a check once in a while or something like that, and Coach Thompson will be on me for that. But for the most part, I’m getting all my checks down.
“The next step is just making all the checks and stuff, and keeping my composure out there. I’ve been on the field plenty of times where it’s been live and stuff, but never on defense and making calls and stuff like that. Just a little bit of experience is what I need.”
Johnson knows ample playing time on defense isn’t a sure thing — Reveiz is a captain, after all — but he’s given constant reminders to stay ready.
“Hopefully I’ll get a good amount of reps in the games,” he said. “Coach Thompson preaches all the time that we had four linebackers get hurt last year, so if you’re on the 3-deep, you’re likely to get out there. Anything can happen.”
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