KNOXVILLE — A.J. Johnson led the Southeastern Conference in tackles last season.
As a sophomore, the Tennessee linebacker made 138 of them.
Tommy Thigpen, though, wants more variety from his middle linebacker.
"He's got to do better," the Volunteers' new linebackers coach said after practice Thursday morning inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex. "We're emphasizing production. Tackles are tackles, but sacks, tackles for losses, caused fumbles, fumble recoveries -- that's what we want out of him this year.
"He told me had one sack his whole career. We've got to get that up."
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Johnson was the best player on a bad Tennessee defense last season and earned a second-team All-SEC selection by the league's coaches. He led the Vols with 8.5 tackles for loss and was credited with eight quarterback hurries. His lone sack of the season came in the season finale against Kentucky, and the only part he played in a turnover was a fumble he recovered against Georgia.
Johnson acknowledged before spring practice he'd be the defense's quarterback and said he was ready for the responsibility.
"It's a privileged position, and guys respect knowledge of the game," Thigpen said. "You can be big and strong and make as many tackles as you want, but your players want the knowledge. They want to know you're tough, they want to know you're smart, and for that position, to gain respect of your teammates, you have to go out there and know your job and know everybody else's job.
"That's [how] we're challenging him."
As defensive coordinator John Jancek noted the positives from his unit Thursday morning, he kept going back to one negative.
"Obviously we've got a lot of work to do with our tackling," he said. "That's pretty obvious for anybody that was out here. We're missing a lot of tackles."
In one particular one-on-one drill, the linebackers struggled mightily trying to bring down the running backs and tight ends.
"That's a hard drill," Thigpen said. "Open-field tackling is a speciality, and you never get to work that. A lot of times you get caught out on space, you don't know how to approach it.
"Most guys like to go down the middle of them, which gives the running back a two-way cut. We like to make sure we pick an angle to give the running back one cut. That's the main emphasis, is taking away space and making tackles in the open space."
Jancek admitted he wasn't shocked at the problem he said has been exposed the past two practices. After winning two consecutive practices, Tennessee's defense lost to the offense Thursday. Tackling, Jancek said, was a big reason why.
"You've got to drill," he added. "You've got to teach the fundamentals. They've got to go in and watch themselves on film and come back out continue to do it every day.
"That's the basis of playing great defense: You've got to be great tacklers."
With Tennessee beginning its spring break today, new head coach Butch Jones amped up his energy to keep the team focused for its final practice before some time off.
"He was on fire," Thigpen said, "and he didn't want us to lose any day's practice, so he came out on a mission."
A couple of coaches liked how the Vols responded to Jones' intensity, and now the staff hopes the players stay out of trouble and avoid undoing any progress from the spring's first six practices.
"That's going to be a test on the maturity of our football team," Jancek said. "If they go out and they don't do anything, that just tells us their level of commitment. If they go on spring break and continue to work out and train and make that a priority for them, then we know we've got something to be excited about."
Nickelback Eric Gordon has yet to return to practice, but the rising fifth-year senior was seen at the complex for Thursday's practice and Wednesday's pro day. ... Tailback Tom Smith was in a gold noncontact jersey Thursday morning. ... Cornerback Daniel Gray returned to practice after wearing a protective boot on his right foot and watching Tuesday's practice. ... Freshman receiver Paul Harris wore No. 91 on Thursday morning as the coaches try to send him a message. "Wearing No. 1 at the University of Tennessee is a privilege ... and there's a standard that's set to wear that jersey," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "We were just sending a message to Paul that in certain parts of his game he needs to pick it up."
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 ...