UT Vols' A.J. Johnson 'still weighing his options' regarding NFL

UT Vols' A.J. Johnson 'still weighing his options' regarding NFL

December 20th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sportscollege

University of Tennessee junior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson breaks through two South Alabama players.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee didn't have to wait long to find out if left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson was returning for his senior season or entering the NFL draft.

The Volunteers still are waiting on what middle linebacker A.J. Johnson will do.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Thursday that Johnson is "still weighing his options" regarding his future. He said there's no timetable for when the Vols will find out if they'll have their leading tackler for each of the past two seasons back for one more season.

"We've been in constant communication," Jones said.

Less than a week after Tennessee's season finale, Richardson announced his decision to go pro, but he's a first-round pick according to some projections.

At this point, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Johnson, an All-SEC selection after his second consecutive 100-plus-tackles season, is projected as more of a mid- or late-round pick. The former four-star recruit is an elite run-stopper, but he struggles in coverage, and his weakness remains his ability to play in space.

Still, he has 324 tackles in his career, and though Andy Spiva's ridiculous program record of 547 career tackles is out of reach, Johnson is only 89 stops out of second on the Vols' all-time list.

"In talking to a couple of scouts who have been there," ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay said during a conference call Thursday, "there seems to be consensus among the guys I've spoken to that he should wind up returning and that he still has some improving to do."

The Vols would like to have Johnson, who played his best football late in the season, back for 2014. If he does elect to enter the draft, Tennessee would have to replace its entire defensive front seven.

"It's our job to educate our players," Jones said. "That's part of the Vol for Life program; that's part of our NFL-readiness program and educating them. We present the facts to them -- what we're hearing around the league, where we think they're at, the pros of coming back, the cons.

"You try to give them as much advice as possible, but at the end of the day it comes down to them making a decision. But we do, we try to present the reasons why, and we're building something very, very special here. We try to present that to them, and then they have to make that decision what's best for them and their family."

Numbers game

In answering an unrelated question, Jones joked that the size of Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class was the "most talked-about topic of conversation in the last month or so."

The Vols currently hold commitments from 30 prospects and signed three junior college players Wednesday, but they can bring in only 30 players total for this class.

Indianapolis receiver Dominique Booth and Tennessee parted ways earlier this month, and Georgia Military College defensive end DaVonte Lambert, who committed to the Vols in August, signed with Auburn on Wednesday.

"I don't talk about numbers, because it's always in flux," Jones said. "It's ever-changing. Recruiting changes minute by minute, hour by hour. It changes. That's the nature of recruiting, and in this conference nothing is set until they sign, and I understand that. It's always been that way with the way we recruit."

During an interview with Knoxville radio station WNML later Thursday, though, Jones did talk numbers.

"You will see us sign more than 30," he declared.

Early arrivals

In addition to the trio of junior college signees -- receiver Von Pearson, offensive tackle Dontavius Blair and defensive tackle Owen Williams -- the Vols will add 11 other players for the start of the spring semester in a couple of weeks.

The 14 early enrollees are the most Jones has had in his coaching career, and it's a high number for any program. Georgia brought in more than a dozen mid-term enrollees last year. Tennessee's number of 14 was related to the number of available scholarships under the NCAA-mandated limit of 85.

The 11 other players who join the Vols next month are tailback Jalen Hurd; receivers Josh Malone and Neiko Creamer; tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf; offensive linemen Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson; defensive tackle Dimarya Mixon; defensive end Joe Henderson; linebacker Jakob Johnson; cornerback Emmanuel Moseley; and safety D'Andre Payne.

"It started first and foremost with areas of need," Jones said. "We all know that we need offensive linemen, we needed defensive linemen, we needed skill players. We really need everything, but it came down to a hierarchy of positional needs. Then, also, it comes down to the players that are available, the best players that are graduating at midyear."

Contact Patrict Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com