KNOXVILLE — A.J. Johnson is listed as one of Tennessee's starting outside linebackers.
If nothing else, it's an imperfect label for the Volunteers' freshman.
The 6-foot-3 245-pound Johnson looks, plays and runs more like a middle linebacker, and despite what the depth chart says, UT's coaches have tried to keep him inside as much as possible.
"It's very rare that he plays out in space for us," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said Wednesday. "I think you're probably reading too much into the position. The way we use him is very much [as a] box linebacker. He very rarely plays on the edges and that's more his game is to play inside."
Top-ranked LSU will bring a bulldozing offensive style to Knoxville on Saturday against the Vols. Coach Derek Dooley called it "60 plays of getting your manhood challenged."
That's fine with Johnson.
"He likes the physical nature of the game," linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said. "He's heavy at the point of attack. He's a very good tackler when he gets his hands on you. He enjoys playing that game because that really fits his skill set. That's something I think he can very productive and be a big part of our game, so I think that's why he likes that game."
Added the soft-spoken Johnson: "I'd rather get to the ball and play some tackle football. I do not prefer coverage. [I] try to be the first one to the ball [with] a violent tackle."
Johnson, a former four-star recruit from Gainesville, Ga., has made an immediate impact for UT because of his talent, and his size was especially attractive to the Vols. Dooley said he knew Johnson was a "baller" from the first day of fall practice. It took a little longer for Sirmon to come around, but his preconceived notions were already high.
"My first impression was I knew he was going to be a very talented player from what he did in high school," Sirmon said. "It was just a matter of how fast we were going to get it to translate into production on the field. The first day of practice I don't think I got too high or too low on anybody.
"Just because some guy comes out and does poorly doesn't mean that's an indication of what he's going to be at here, and [it's] the same token if he comes out and it's lights out."
Fortunately for UT, the light came on quickly for Johnson. He's been a starter since the first week of preseason camp. Johnson might have five starts like fellow freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt, but the game plan for Cincinnati and Buffalo's spread offenses called for UT to start in its five-defensive back nickel package. Johnson is tied with Maggitt for third on the team with 21 tackles, and he showed his strength against Florida when he ripped the ball away from Gators tailback Jeff Demps.
The catch, though, is improving his play in space. As productive as he's been, both Florida and Georgia have been able to force Johnson to play in space. He admitted improving speed is something he must do.
"That's his No. 1 thing and he knows that," Wilcox said. "Again, we try to limit it based on our calls, but at some point, you can't build your defense around, 'You never have to move.' Everybody's got a role to play and we try to limit it based on your abilities right now.
"That's something he'll improve on. We're not holding anything back because of A.J. being young or anything like that. We're just trying to put him in a position to be successful."
Johnson has been so successful so quickly due to his instincts. Wilcox snapped his fingers to simulate how Johnson reacts when he makes his reads, and Sirmon said the game simply "makes sense" to the freshman.
With a senior starting a middle linebacker in Austin Johnson, A.J. Johnson could move to the middle in the future in a switch that Dooley wouldn't rule out. Given how the Vols are using Johnson now, though, it wouldn't be that big of a move.
"I think we try to identify all the guys and their strengths and how they can best help us win," Sirmon said. "I think that's part of coaching is you can't have a cookie cutter system for every situation. You have to adapt, and I think that's one of the most important things you can do is identify their strengths and put them in that position. Then you're not disappointed in what they can't do, but you're thankful and you're happy about what they can do."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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