Face of Tennessee Vols? A.J. Johnson focused on wins as senior

Face of Tennessee Vols? A.J. Johnson focused on wins as senior

July 16th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days on Tuesday in Hoover, Ala.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

HOOVER, Ala. - An early Tuesday afternoon interview with a radio station complete, A.J. Johnson grabbed the placard bearing his name, affiliation and image and proudly posed for a couple of pictures.

Roughly two hours later, the Tennessee linebacker paused as he ascended to the podium in the main ballroom at this week's SEC media days, turned his back to the waiting group of reporters and smiled as he snapped a picture with his phone.

The Volunteers' senior boasts a long list of accolades and the most ink in the team's media guide for the 2014 season.

He has 11 more career starts (34) than the Vols' second-most experienced player (safety Brian Randolph) and 324 career tackles, just 90 stops shy of the No. 2 spot on Tennessee's all-time list.

Is Johnson the face of a program that currently has more youth and unknowns than star power?

"I really don't like saying I'm the face of the program, because I don't feel like I'm some big superstar," he told a group of local media before beginning the day's interview rounds. "It ain't nothing like that. I know I'm a senior and a guy who's been here for four years that's been playing and been making a lot of plays and stuff.

"As a senior and a leader, I feel like I'm part of the face of the program to help us be better. I'm a senior -- this is my senior year -- so I've got to help us be a better team than we was the past few years."

The freshman, sophomore or junior versions of the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Georgia native weren't suited for the tiring three-hour block of endless questions and interview after interview, but Johnson appears to have broken out of his shell.

He tied a black and orange striped tie amusingly short intentionally so the "Power T" logo near the end of it wouldn't be hidden by his closed suit jacket.

He snapped the selfie, posted on his Instagram account shortly after he left Hoover, and handled questions like he does running backs.

Asked if he played the NCAA football video game currently at the center of an ongoing legal case, Johnson replied he's "more of a 'Call of Duty' man."

The oddest question he fielded, he acknowledged, was about the heat that kickers take on social media after missing a big kick.

"They've got a lot of pressure," he said as he smiled, "and it's hard to put myself in those shoes."

One of the few veteran presences on what will be one of the youngest college teams in the nation this season, Johnson knows he has to be a leader and provide an example to the defensive half of a touted 2014 signing class.

And until one of those promising freshman talents -- whether it's receiver Josh Malone, tailback Jalen Hurd or one of a few defensive newcomers who arrived this summer -- breaks out, Johnson will be the center of Tennessee's program.

Curt Maggitt, Johnson's best friend and roommate since they showed up in Knoxville three years ago, believes he can handle such a spotlight.

"Oh, yeah, by far," Maggitt said. "A.J. is durable. A.J. is a football player. He's strong, he's fast and he can play ball. All those accolades, he deserves them. His leadership, he's become a lot better of a leader.

"He used to be more of a 'I'm going to get my work in and be gone' kind of thing, but now he's affecting others. He's been influential, but he's affecting others on purpose. He's going to tell Jakob [Johnson], 'Let's do this,' or get Dillon Bates to do this or watch film. That's A.J. maturing."

Johnson has been a primary target of Butch Jones's microphoned verbal jabs in practices over the last 19 months, but the Vols' second-year coach has seen a flip switch for his linebacker.

"A.J. always has the drive, A.J. always has the work ethic, but I see a sense of urgency in him in terms of a sense of urgency he's putting on others around him," Jones said. "He's learning how to lead, and him and Curt feed off of each other. He's now holding others accountable for their actions.

"You can see that growth and that maturation process in terms of leadership really come through with A.J."

The senior's play -- Johnson was a Freshman All-America selection in 2011 and followed his debut with consecutive All-SEC seasons -- gives what Jones called "on-the-field credibility" to his words and actions.

"He's a great football player," Jones continued. "He has great instincts to get to the football. He brings it every single day. A.J. Johnson doesn't have bad practices. All you do is roll the footballs out there and he's ready to play football.

"The next evolution to his game is becoming a leader and being a voice, helping the other 10 individuals on the grass at the same time understand that we all represent the University of Tennessee, and he's done a great job of that to date."

Johnson admitted his February arrest on charges of resisting arrest and providing alcohol to minors at an apartment party "helped me as a person" and made him realize he needed to work on being a better leader.

The incident long in the past, Johnson now is focused on reversing the losing trend that's plagued Tennessee's program and his own career.

"The big thing is I want to go out with my team and win," Johnson said. "I ain't really worried about no legacy. All I want my legacy to be that I left Tennessee as a winner and a hard player."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.