Johnson stays true to UT

Johnson stays true to UT

January 31st, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Bruce Miller can't explain why A.J. Johnson is so enamored with the University of Tennessee.

But considering Johnson, a four-star linebacker out of Gainesville (Ga.) High School, can't put why he's chosen the Volunteers two separate times into words himself, his coach's ignorance is probably justified.

"I don't know, it's just that feeling you get," the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Johnson said. "That's the place I want to be and play."

"He just likes Tennessee," said Miller, Gainesville's coach since 2002. "I do not know [why]. Every time he goes up there he just tells me, 'Coach, I just like it.'"

Not one to wait for last-month or signing day drama, Johnson, the No. 8 inside linebacker and No. 11 player in Georgia according to, committed to UT in October of 2009 after visiting for UT's 45-19 win against Georgia. When former coach Lane Kiffin left for Southern Cal last January, though, he naturally opened his recruitment back up

"I was surprised [at the first commitment]," Miller said, "but I knew A.J. wanted to get a lot of this stuff taken care of before his senior year. I didn't know whether he would use [Kiffin's departure] as an opportunity to switch. There was something about Tennessee that he just liked.

"He never made a big thing about going some place to visit. In fact, you hardly knew what was going with him cause he's such a quiet kid."

While he was back on the market, other schools came calling for the the strong, athletic linebacker. Johnson visited Florida, Alabama, Georgia Tech and Clemson and held offers from Auburn and USC.

New UT coach Derek Dooley, along with the legacy his name carries from his father and long-time Georgia coach Vince, and the efforts of defensive line coach Chuck Smith kept Johnson's attention.

"It was an honor to meet [Dooley]," Johnson said. "He's got a great name, he's got history in Georgia and he himself is a great person. Some head coaches, they walk around knowing they're the boss [but] he's a down-to-earth coach."

Said Miller: "We're 45 minutes from Athens, and [Vince Dooley's] still a big name around here. I think that carries some weight with A.J., too."

After a spring and summer of looking around, Johnson committed to UT this past October, granting him the unique position of having been recruited by the Vols' last two staffs.

"That was a plus on Tennessee when I had two good recruiters coming after me," said Johnson, who was recruited by Kiffin's defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. "[Kiffin] was younger and more hip, and [Dooley] is a good man in general. They're different, but they're two good coaches."

"Coach Dooley's probably a little bit more low-key on the recruiting aspect," Miller said. "But you can tell he's enthusiastic about it. I've only met Coach Kiffin once, but I just felt like Coach Kiffin, he just was a very good talker and could influence you. He's also a great recruiter, [but] I just think you get a little more down home-ness with Coach Dooley."

Georgia's Class 3A Defensive Player of the Year, Johnson will be one of UT's most important signees when he officially inks with the Vols on Wednesday, though it's not just because of his ranking or accolades.

For a UT team that graduated starters Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson and wasn't deep at linebacker to begin with, Johnson is a prime candidate to contribute as a true freshman.

"I would be surprised if the kid doesn't get some playing time his freshman year," Miller said. "He's just got that knack for being where the ball is. He just finds the football. It seems like where the football is, he's going to be there. You can't teach it; it's just something that's an innate ability for him and it's something natural.

"He's the strongest competitor I've ever been around. If we were playing checkers, he wouldn't want to get beat. I think it's what set him apart from a lot of others."

Johnson, who proved he has the speed and strength to play in college with his performance at the Under Armour All-American game in early January against the best high school seniors in the nation, knows he's got an opportunity to play early.

"[I've got to] bust my tail real hard [and] learn the defense," he said. "They're going to give me a chance, I've just got to show up and see what I've got."

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