published Saturday, March 17th, 2012

UT's Johnson shows versatility at pro day

KNOXVILLE -- Austin Johnson might have thought he was simply stepping on the indoor football field at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex on Friday afternoon.

Really, though, the former Tennessee linebacker was stepping into a time machine.

It took him back one year, when another former Volunteers linebacker was trying to impress NFL scouts as a fullback. Unlike Nick Reveiz, however, Johnson relived his days at the position he played as a freshman and sophomore at UT when he took handoffs and caught passes out of the backfield during the Vols' pro day.

"I feel like a lot of the fullback stuff comes naturally to me, running routes and those kind of drills," Johnson said. "I definitely will do some more offensive stuff, catching more balls if I have to. My main focus is linebacker unless a team says they want me [at fullback]. Wherever I end up going, I'll adjust accordingly."

Friday was Johnson's biggest chance to improve his NFL stock since playing in the Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game in January. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound North Carolina native joined the rest of his UT senior class for Friday's combine events and individual position drills in front of NFL scouts and a handful of other former Vols, including Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Most of the current Vols were on had to watch as well after running the steps of Neyland Stadium in the early-morning hours to close out the offseason workout program.

Unlike counterparts and NFL combine participants Malik Jackson and Tauren Poole, Johnson admitted he was shaking before running his 40-yard sprint. A dozen weeks of defensive-skills training at D1 Sports Training in Nashville led up to it for Johnson, who said he was more nervous than he would be for a game. At the conclusion, though, Johnson felt he helped himself.

"I knew it would be an opportunity for me because I played on offense and played on defense," he said. "I knew that there would be teams interested in the offensive side. The more I can show, the more I can do, it really helps me out and shows my versatility. I was happy to do whatever they asked.

"I think I opened some eyes today for people who were maybe not looking at me until today."

It's the same attitude Johnson had when new coach Derek Dooley and staff moved Johnson to defense before the 2010 season. After backing up Reveiz for a season, Johnson, who made the Academic All-SEC team three times, took over the starting spot at middle linebacker between freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt. While the present and future of his younger teammates garnered numerous headlines, the senior Johnson quietly led the Vols with 81 tackles.

As a fullback, he played in 18 games over two seasons as a backup to Kevin Cooper. His most notable moment was a 38-yard catch-and-run touchdown on the second play of the black-clad Vols' win against South Carolina.

"He looked good," Poole said. "He looked natural to me. He said he was mad the way he [caught] the ball, but to me, he looked good. Hopefully he'll get a chance anywhere in the league."

Whether he's drafted or not, Johnson is hoping for exactly that.

"Obviously I want to get drafted," he said. "It would be a dream of mine, and it would be awesome. But at the end of the day, I just want to make a camp. When you make a camp, it's a clean slate and that's when it starts.

"As long as I get that opportunity to get on a team and show what I've got and represent the University of Tennessee, that's what I'll have to do."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

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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