KNOXVILLE — A.J. Johnson had an idea for his own nickname in his mind from a special position he played in high school.
Justin Wilcox deemed that it didn’t fit, so the University of Tennessee defensive coordinator slapped a new moniker on his freshman linebacker that he felt was more appropriate.
“He kept referring to himself as a ‘Wildcat,’ because in high school he played Wildcat quarterback,” Wilcox said Wednesday. “I was thinking, ‘Nuh-uh, no. You don’t play like a wildcat; you’re more like a dump truck.’ I don’t know if that one will stick. He’s doing a good job. He’s getting better every week.”
Austin Johnson, UT’s senior middle linebacker, first revealed Wilcox’s new nickname for the other Johnson linebacker Monday. Having gone by “The Beast” handle that accompanies his Facebook and Twitter pages since high school, A.J. Johnson laughed and shook his head when he learned the nickname was getting out.
“Oh, man, he said that?” he said. “I don’t want that to get around too much. I don’t like that nickname. I don’t like ‘Dump Truck,’ but since Coach Wilcox said it, it’s pretty cool, I guess.”
There’s been little for the Vols to not like about Johnson’s play this season. The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder made 24 tackles in the past two games against top-ranked LSU and second-ranked Alabama. The 13-tackle performance against the Crimson Tide earned him the honor of Southeastern Conference freshman of the week.
The Johnsons are tied for the team lead in tackles, and the freshman’s average of nearly nine tackles in the Vols’ four SEC games is fourth in the league. The only other freshman in the top 50 is UT’s Curt Maggitt at No. 41. Only Eric Berry (86 in 2007), Jonathan Hefney (65 in 2004) and Reggie White (51 in 1980) had more tackles as freshmen than A.J. Johnson does — and he has possibly six games left this season.
“He’s big and heavy, and when he gets his hands on you he’s done a good job of finishing plays,” linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable. We talked early in the season that he and Curt just needed more and more reps. The more reps we can manufacture in practice and in games, the more he’s going to play to the level of what we all expected him to — just playing off instincts, playing with effort and playing toughness. That’s what we’re starting to see.”
Those unique instincts and an innate ability to be near the football are what made Johnson attractive to the Vols and a handful of other big-time schools. It’s also what helped him earn a starting spot almost immediately. Then the biggest obstacle was learning Wilcox’s defense.
“I know when I first got here,” Johnson said, “I was saying, ‘I would never learn this defense. I’s too much.’ But as it went on, it just got easier and easier by each game. Now I’m still not sure for every little thing, but I’ve pretty much got the basics down to let me excel.”
That’s exactly what Johnson has done while also earning new nicknames and building a unique relationship with fellow freshman Maggitt. The two share plenty of similarities, from their position and build to similar sets of dreadlocks. Johnson said he and Maggitt are like brothers.
“They have a great relationship,” Austin Johnson said. “It’s kind of cool to see these two freshmen linebackers coming in and being really good friends. They’re going to be playing with each other for the next three years after this, so it’s good to see. I feel like I’m just kind of their mentor or the older guy in the mix.
“It’s awesome to see, and they’re going to have a bright future. I can’t wait to watch them.”
For A.J. Johnson’s future to be as bright as his present, he’ll need to develop into more of an all-around linebacker. His frame and speed are more suited to playing the run as opposed to dropping into coverage, and the Vols have had to fit their scheme to his skill by playing him nearer to the middle than his position as an outside linebacker might suggest. He could move to the middle when Austin Johnson vacates that spot after this season.
“We’re going to need him to play against one-back teams, not only two-back teams,” Wilcox said. “It’s part of his growth is to continue to development against one-back, more spread-type offenses. But we think he can do it. We’ll put him in positions schematically where we think he plays the best. That’s just part of his growth as a player.”
That growth likely will require to rely on more than his natural abilities, although those seem to be working fine right now. As A.J. Johnson gains more experience and a better grasp on the schemes of both his defense and opposing offenses, extra work will become a regular part of his preparation.
“We’re always working on trying to educate them on what it takes to be a special player, and right now we’re still working through all those guys,” Sirmon said. “They don’t know how to watch [video], and those are things that we’ll work on, especially in the offseason, of what to watch for, how to spend the appropriate time on what you need to look for and things like that.”
For right now, of course, the Vols just hope Johnson keeps playing to the style that earned him his newest nickname.
“He’s so big and physical,” Austin Johnson said, “and that’s what we need in our [weakside] linebacker because they’re going to have the chance to make a lot of tackles and he’s taking advantage of that. That’s just him. That’s what I like to see, and he’s going to keep doing it.”
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 ...