UT Vols' A.J. Johnson embraces coach Butch Jones' pushing

UT Vols' A.J. Johnson embraces coach Butch Jones' pushing

October 5th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee's Austin Bolen (45).

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

POLL: Which team will win ? Tennessee or Georgia?

NO. 6 GEORGIA (3-1, 2-0 SEC) AT TENNESSEE (3-2, 0-1)

3:39 p.m. * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * WDEF/106.5 FM

The matchup

Aside from cornerback Damian Swann, it's entirely new cast in the Georgia's secondary.

It's the same for Tennessee's receiving corps.

Gone from last season's 51-44 Georgia shootout victory are six players who were selected in April's NFL draft: receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Mychal Rivera from Tennessee, and cornerback Sanders Commings and safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams from Georgia.

That list doesn't even include Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Zach Rogers, who was the Vols' leading receiver that day in Athens.

Now the two units are relying on seven freshmen between them, and the youth and inexperience have shown early this season. Tennessee is last in the SEC in both passing yards per game and passing efficiency. While it's faced three outstanding offenses, Georgia is allowing 277 yards per game through the air, which ranks only ahead of Missouri in the SEC.

For the Vols to keep pace with Georgia's offense, they'll need to throw and catch better than they have all season.

"They don't play like they're young," Vols quarterback Justin Worley said of Georgia's defense. "They fly around the football field. There's holes there, but you've got to find them and you've got to execute them when the opportunities are presented."

One to watch

Is Tennessee catching a break if Georgia's Todd Gurley can't play, or is Georgia's offense loaded enough it won't skip a beat without its star tailback?

Keith Marshall will have a role in answering both questions.

The Bulldogs' sophomore ran for 96 yards on 20 carries in Georgia's win against LSU last week, but he managed just 26 yards on 11 carries in the second half following Gurley's second-quarter ankle injury. Still, Marshall has the speed and elusiveness that make him an excellent complement to the powerful, bruising Gurley.

Case in point: Marshall needed just 10 carries to pile up 164 yards against Tennessee last season in a performance that included touchdown sprints of 72 and 75 yards.

Given the way Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is playing and the menu of options he has at his disposal in the passing game, the Bulldogs should be able to move the ball on the Vols' defense even if they suffer a dropoff without Gurley.

"I think Marshall is very capable of carrying the load," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "You talk about carrying the load with 15 or 20 carries, and I think he could do that if he had to. J.J. Green has done a nice job for us when he's gotten in the game, and we think Brendan Douglas is a very legitimate SEC back.

"If Todd is not able to go, we can count on those three."

In the end

The Bulldogs emerged from a September where they faced three top-10 teams in Clemson, South Carolina and LSU with its spot intact in both the SEC and national title races. Georgia must now navigate a stretch of road games at Tennessee and Vanderbilt sandwiching a visit from Missouri, who could be undefeated if it beats the Commodores in Nashville tonight, before the annual showdown with Florida.

Though its fan base continues to be frustrated by the quarterback situation, Tennessee enters another brutal October slate at 3-2, which is where everybody expected the Vols to be. Tennessee flopped in two drastically different ways in its September road games against ranked opponents in Florida and Oregon, and now the Vols get a chance to pull an upset at home.

Georgia is averaging 41.5 points a game and scored 51 on the Vols in last season's shootout, and it's difficult to envision this Tennessee offense being able to keep pace the way it did a year ago.

Prediction: Georgia 44, Tennessee 24

KNOXVILLE -- It's become a daily staple of Tennessee's football practices.

Regardless of where he is at Haslam Field, first-year Volunteers coach Butch Jones will pick out No. 45 in orange and lob a verbal grenade intended for motivation at A.J. Johnson, his middle linebacker.

Four weeks ago Jones was calling Johnson an NFL practice-squad player who got to share the field with Western Kentucky linebacker Andrew Jackson, whom the coach dubbed a first-round draft pick.

Two weeks ago, Jones barked at Johnson that he'd be a walk-on at Florida.

This week, ahead of sixth-ranked Georgia's visit, Jones told Johnson he was a "wanna-be Bulldog."

"Between Coach Jones and A.J., I can't really say who really hates losing the most," said fellow linebacker Dontavis Sapp. "A.J. wants to be the best at everything he does. I'm striving to be the best, and I'm telling him he can't beat me, but he's still going to try.

"You tell him he can't jump a 50-inch vertical: He's going to try to do it, and he's going to keep doing it till he does and keep working to do it till he does. His work habits have blown through the roof, and you can tell it's showing up on the field. People are trying to exploit him, and he's playing a lot better this year."

Asked about Jones' jabs this week, Johnson called it "nothing but motivation" and shrugged it off.

"It's pretty hard not to listen to it because it's over the loud mic," he added, "but I know he's just wanting the best out of me."

Though he's slightly off the pace he set last season when he led the SEC with 138 tackles as a sophomore, Johnson keeps showing up the near the ball often and getting guys on the ground when he arrives.

The 6-foot-2, 243-pounder from Gainesville about an hour drive from Georgia's Sanford Stadium is Tennessee's second-leading tackler, behind safety Brian Randolph, but he's still looking for his first sack -- though he's still bothered he let one get away against Florida -- and his first involvement in a turnover this season.

Tennessee's coaching staff pushed Johnson throughout the offseason to be more disruptive instead of just a tackler.

"Coach Jones is on him all the time about he led the SEC tackles but he didn't have many tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, fumbles, fumbles forced. I think he's really working that," Sapp said.

"Every time he tackles somebody, you can see he's trying to start the mower. He's trying to get the ball out. He's working his craft, trying to get those things that we need on defense and as a whole team."

The knock on Johnson always has been how he plays in space and his coverage ability. Some teams have tried to exploit that weakness by matching him up one-on-one with a slot receiver on middle crossing routes. Others likely will follow suit.

Defensive coordinator John Jancek said he felt Johnson has handled those situations well.

"Show me a guy who's a great downhill 250-pound guy in the run and then can cover a slot receiver," he said. "It's not something those guys are good at. It's just not their skill set. We've been real conscious of trying to keep him out of those situations. It's not fair to him, but there's some things that he can improve."

Most notably, the coaches have stressed eyes and hands improvement in reading receivers, rerouting those players and defending passes thrown his direction.

"He can stop the run as good as any linebacker in America," linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. "He stuffs the run; he can play sideline to sideline on toss sweeps; he chases; he's in great shape. The thing we're going to keep working on is when the ball is in the air, what do your eyes do? What do you need to do with your eyes and your feet?"

Against South Alabama's spread offense last week, Johnson played 82 snaps, and though part of that is the Vols' lack of quality depth behind him, the Vols' coaching staff has confidence in his ability to play against any offense.

"I like him in pass coverage. I'd rather for him to be in there," Thigpen said. "I have a comfort level when he's in the game because I know he can make plays in space. They're going to try jerk routes on him, but he knows he can cover those. I have no doubts he can cover those routes. It's what you do with your eyes and getting your hands on the man."

Johnson had double-digit tackles in 10 games last season, including 21 against Mississippi State. He made 13 and 11 tackles against spread teams Troy and Missouri and combined for 36 tackles against Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The 14th double-digit tackle game of his career came against Florida two weeks ago.

Jones continually lets Johnson know more is required.

"That's every day," Thigpen said. "You've just got to stay focused. If they can talk you out of your game, that means you're not focused."

"They're going to push us each day," Johnson said. "No matter who we're playing, they're going to come out there with a lot of enthusiasm and stuff and ready to get practice going and pushing everybody."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.