A.J. Johnson, Butch Jones set for UT Vols preseason drills (with video)

A.J. Johnson, Butch Jones set for UT Vols preseason drills (with video)

August 1st, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee coach Butch Jones speaks to members of the media during a news conference at Neyland Stadium on Wednesday. The Vols start practice Friday and open their season against Austin Peay on Aug. 31.

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

<strong>KNOXVILLE &#8212;</strong> The first words out of A.J. Johnson&#8217;s mouth late Wednesday morning were the Tennessee linebacker&#8217;s playful deflection of the notion he&#8217;s the center of the Volunteers&#8217; 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&#8217;s leading tackler from 2012 was looser, it&#8217;s because he was.

Sitting behind a microphone at the table inside Neyland Stadium&#8217;s media room never has been his most comfortable spot , but his confidence heading into the season now has Johnson carrying himself differently there.

&#8220;It&#8217;s just a blessing to be here, man,&#8221; he said with a wide grin. &#8220;I&#8217;m really excited about this year. I feel we&#8217;re going to do real big things, and like you said, I am a little more looser [because] I&#8217;m feeling real good about this season.&#8221;

Johnson was hardly alone aboard the train of optimism that ran through the Vols&#8217; preseason news conference. It&#8217;s what happens this time every year as teams start practice. At Tennessee, it&#8217;s even more the case given the impressive offseason success of first-year coach Butch Jones.

Now, though, it&#8217;s time for football.

&#8220;I think we all know this. It&#8217;s not a secret,&#8221; Jones said. &#8220;Are we going to be the most talented team this year? No, we&#8217;re not. We all understand that. But talent doesn&#8217;t win championships. Teams win championships.

&#8220;[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.&#8221;

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&#8217;s 138 tackles as a sophomore last season ranked fourth nationally, led the SEC and were the most by a Vol since Jerod Mayo&#8217;s 140-stop 2007 season. He was a good player on a bad defense, the best on statistically the worst unit in Tennessee&#8217;s history.

Naturally, Johnson didn&#8217;t like talking about it.

&#8220;I changed a lot,&#8221; he said, &#8220;because when I interviewed with y&#8217;all after a game, I lost, and that&#8217;s when I really don&#8217;t want to talk to nobody, after another loss. I&#8217;d be like, &#8216;Why do I got to talk? We lost.&#8217; It&#8217;s just a change in mindset and doing stuff right and being more approachable.

&#8220;It&#8217;s been a great offseason, so I&#8217;m ready for it.&#8221;

Tennessee&#8217;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&#8217;s encouraged by what he&#8217;s seen from his middle linebacker, but the Vols want to see him continue to take steps toward becoming better than he&#8217;s been.

&#8220;We need a high level of consistency with A.J.,&#8221; Jones said. &#8220;Everything that we have challenged A.J. with, he has responded. I think he&#8217;s in the best shape of his life. He plays exceptionally hard. He&#8217;s really bought into the standard.

&#8220;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&#8217;s] him continuing to work on that part of his game, but &#8230; he&#8217;s had a tremendous offseason.&#8221;

Playing alongside Herman Lathers, a fifth-year senior that every player respected as a leader, last season, Johnson admitted he didn&#8217;t do the best job he could in being that alpha male last season, but now he said he&#8217;s accustomed to what&#8217;s expected of him.

&#8220;It&#8217;s just a role that&#8217;s come on and I have to take,&#8221; he said. &#8220;It&#8217;s something that&#8217;s not really hard to take because we&#8217;ve got older guys beside and other guys who are stepping up and talking and leading as well. You&#8217;ve always got other people beside you that are going to help you.

&#8220;I feel like [Lathers] probably would have wanted me to speak more last year,&#8221; he said. &#8220;I know I wasn&#8217;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&#8217;s just something that I embrace now.&#8221;

<em>Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.</em>