KNOXVILLE - A.J. Johnson had no way to see it coming.

The Tennessee linebacker's gaze was ahead at the group of reporters surrounding and peppering him with questions about the Volunteers' new defense.

Suddenly, Johnson felt the slap of a piece of paper containing UT's practice plan on the back of his dreadlocked head. The assailant was Sal Sunseri, Johnson's new defensive coordinator.

"That's right. I did it!" Sunseri woofed as he continued toward his office inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.

Johnson simply grinned and kept answering questions, including one about his attacker.

"I know he's a great coach," the rising sophomore said after Tuesday morning's practice. "He's coached a lot of great players and put a lot of players in the NFL. The defense we're running, once we get it down to a T, it's a defense that's hard to get yards on and do anything on."

It's also a defense that could better suit the 6-foot-3, 244-pound Johnson. In the new 3-4 base formation, he has one of the inside linebacker spots locked down after a shortage of outside linebackers last season forced him into action as a freshman. Though he might have been out of position, he finished second on the team with 80 tackles and garnered five Freshman All-American selections.

"I think some of the things we were doing with him last year exposed him a little bit in space," head coach Derek Dooley said. "How we structured this defense, it's going to be able to utilize his strengths more often. A.J. is a good player in any scheme. What we've got to do is make sure how we can make him the most productive player he can be."

Johnson has done his part during the offseason. He trimmed five pounds, which he thinks will help him move better and maximize his speed. And evening video sessions with some fellow linebackers have helped the Vols be as prepared as possible for a spring practice in which they'll learn an entirely new defensive system.

Though he admitted it was tough to see linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox leave UT, Johnson said he's excited about what Sunseri's defense can do for him and the team.

"It's part of the game for coaches to leave and go," he said. "[In the new defense] I know I'll be able to blitz a lot, or might don't blitz and drop back and play with the offense's mind.

"I don't know if we're going to learn everything by the end of spring because it's a lot, [but] just all the stuff that we know, we'll work on it and get it perfect."

Accomplishing that, Dooley said, will require more work mentally.

"He's got a lot of confidence in his abilities," Dooley said. "I don't think the light ever came on schematically [last season], but he's a good football player and good football players find their way to the ball. That's what he does. He's got a long way to go in being a good football player who's been blessed with a lot of ability and translating that into playing the best he can play.

"He's got a long way to go on that, but he could be a special player. You can't just show up and play ball. He can show up and play ball and be good, but he's got a chance to be really good and that's going to require a lot of mental work."

It's work that Johnson should be able to handle if he chooses. Though he admitted Tuesday he feels like a freshman again, he's already made the adjustment to the speed and physical play of the SEC. At least for spring, Johnson's biggest adjustments are to the faster tempo of practice and the heavy amount of installation done daily with the new schemes.

"It makes the players want to go harder and work harder and let us know when we're doing stuff wrong," Johnson said of the practice style for UT's new defensive staff. "They get on us right away. There ain't no holding back."

Then, at least, Johnson can see it coming.