<strong>KNOXVILLE —</strong> The first words out of A.J. Johnson’s mouth late Wednesday morning were the Tennessee linebacker’s playful deflection of the notion he’s the center of the Volunteers’ defense.
Moments later, he was bragging and laughing about his bowling skills and recalling a team whitewater rafting this offseason when he tackled Daniel McCullers, the 6-foot-8 defensive tackle who outweighs him by more than 100 pounds.
If it seemed like the SEC’s leading tackler from 2012 was looser, it’s because he was.
Sitting behind a microphone at the table inside Neyland Stadium’s media room never has been his most comfortable spot , but his confidence heading into the season now has Johnson carrying himself differently there.
“It’s just a blessing to be here, man,” he said with a wide grin. “I’m really excited about this year. I feel we’re going to do real big things, and like you said, I am a little more looser [because] I’m feeling real good about this season.”
Johnson was hardly alone aboard the train of optimism that ran through the Vols’ preseason news conference. It’s what happens this time every year as teams start practice. At Tennessee, it’s even more the case given the impressive offseason success of first-year coach Butch Jones.
Now, though, it’s time for football.
“I think we all know this. It’s not a secret,” Jones said. “Are we going to be the most talented team this year? No, we’re not. We all understand that. But talent doesn’t win championships. Teams win championships.
“[At Cincinnati] we won two championships in a row and I believe we were picked fourth or fifth in our conference, but I thought we had the best collection of individuals who bought into a goal and they held each other accountable to the standards and expectations of the football program.”
The same media that picked Tennessee to finish fifth in its own division this season selected Johnson to a first-team All-SEC spot. The 6-foot-2, 243-pounder’s 138 tackles as a sophomore last season ranked fourth nationally, led the SEC and were the most by a Vol since Jerod Mayo’s 140-stop 2007 season. He was a good player on a bad defense, the best on statistically the worst unit in Tennessee’s history.
Naturally, Johnson didn’t like talking about it.
“I changed a lot,” he said, “because when I interviewed with y’all after a game, I lost, and that’s when I really don’t want to talk to nobody, after another loss. I’d be like, ‘Why do I got to talk? We lost.’ It’s just a change in mindset and doing stuff right and being more approachable.
“It’s been a great offseason, so I’m ready for it.”
Tennessee’s coaching staff targeted the former four-star recruit as a potential difference maker on a defense lacking them and pushed the junior to make more disruptive plays and step up as a leader.
Jones said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen from his middle linebacker, but the Vols want to see him continue to take steps toward becoming better than he’s been.
“We need a high level of consistency with A.J.,” Jones said. “Everything that we have challenged A.J. with, he has responded. I think he’s in the best shape of his life. He plays exceptionally hard. He’s really bought into the standard.
“Now A.J. has to do a great job of improving his leadership skills. Just like the quarterback is usually the alpha male of the offense, the middle linebacker is the alpha male of the defense. I think [it’s] him continuing to work on that part of his game, but … he’s had a tremendous offseason.”
Playing alongside Herman Lathers, a fifth-year senior that every player respected as a leader, last season, Johnson admitted he didn’t do the best job he could in being that alpha male last season, but now he said he’s accustomed to what’s expected of him.
“It’s just a role that’s come on and I have to take,” he said. “It’s something that’s not really hard to take because we’ve got older guys beside and other guys who are stepping up and talking and leading as well. You’ve always got other people beside you that are going to help you.
“I feel like [Lathers] probably would have wanted me to speak more last year,” he said. “I know I wasn’t as vocal as I should have been, but I know I looked up to him. He taught me a lot of stuff on the field and off as well. It’s just something that I embrace now.”
<em>Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.</em>