published Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

UT Vols' A.J. Johnson returned to big expectations

  • photo
    Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) in action during an NCAA college football game against Western Kentucky.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The decision is moving further and further into the past.

A.J. Johnson's focus now is fixed on his senior season at Tennessee.

The All-SEC linebacker has lofty goals to reach and improvements to make in his final season with the Volunteers, but those may not match the level of expectations heaped onto the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder's broad shoulders by his head coach.

After Tennessee's practice Tuesday, Johnson spoke for the first time publicly since electing to come back for his final season in college rather than leave for the NFL draft -- a decision on which he said he wavered and back and forth -- and now he's aiming for a strong finish with the Vols.

"It was better for me as a person to come back for another year," he said. "I had goals set for when I came to Tennessee, and I hadn't reached some of the goals. You only get a certain amount of time to play at Tennessee, and you could play forever in the league, so might as well come back my senior year and have fun with it.

"When I was getting recruited, I wanted to win the SEC, I wanted to go the national championship," he added when asked about those goals. "I know they're not impossible. They're goals I can reach. I want to be one of the best players coming out. I love Tennessee. Who'd want to leave Tennessee early when you've got one year left?"

Question marks about his ability in pass coverage and his sideline-to-sideline speed likely were why Johnson received only a mid-round grade from the NFL. Still, he's led Tennessee in tackles the past two seasons. After leading the SEC in tackles with 138 as a sophomore in 2012, Johnson made 106 stops last season.

Yet Vols coach Butch Jones, who's always been hard on his two-time All-SEC defender, is expecting even more out Johnson the senior both on and off the field.

"Just a very high level of consistency each and every day in setting the standard, being the leader, being a guy that everybody rallies around," Jones said, "and setting the tone, setting the standard, the way we run to the football, our level of physicality, the amount of preparation it takes through film study -- all the things that great players do.

"Great players have a way of elevating the play of others around them. They bring their level of play up, and A.J. has to set the standard that, 'Hey, we have a very young defensive front, a very young defensive line. This is the way we play defensive football here at Tennessee.'"

Johnson and fellow linebacker Curt Maggitt are two players Jones has pointed to as leaders for his young team, and the coach believes Johnson has the ability to meet his expectations.

"He can. He just has to learn how to do that," Jones said. "He's a work in progress, just like everyone else. But I expect a lot from A.J., because there's one thing: A.J. does bring it every day. I expect him now to be more vocal with other players around him. Curt and him have to feed off of each other. That's what great leaders do."

Leaders also fill that role through their play on the field, and for all of his tackles in the three years of his career, Johnson still is lacking production in the big-play category. In 36 career games, he has 21.5 tackles for loss, just one sack, only one forced fumble and four fumble recoveries and zero interceptions, and he's well aware of what's been missing from his game.

"I only got one sack since I've been here, so that was one thing I'm hunting for," he said. "If someone throws the ball around, I've got to get the pick. I ain't got one of those yet.

"I feel like that's one thing I've been thinking, too, in watching, is I've got to put my hat more on the ball. I've got to see the ball and put my hat on the ball. That's what really causes fumbles."

Tennessee's defensive coaches expressed their desire for Johnson to return this season, but he said he appreciated the Vols' staff not going over the top in trying to keep him around.

"They weren't really stressing as much, because it was a tough decision," he said. "For a guy making the decision to go to the pros or come back for college, they weren't too much in my ear. The coaches wanted me to come back, and the way they did it, it helped me want to come back. They weren't bugging me too much.

"They let me think about it and clear my thoughts up and see what's best for me."

And now the Vols are expecting the best -- and then some -- from their star linebacker.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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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