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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee fifth-year senior receiver Brandon Johnson collects a pass in the end zone during an indoor workout late last month.

There are not a slew of pleasant memories to recount from Tennessee's 2017 football season, when the Volunteers sustained eight losses for the first time in program history and endured their first winless run through Southeastern Conference play.

That, of course, resulted in the turbulent coaching transition from Butch Jones to interim Brady Hoke to current third-year mentor Jeremy Pruitt.

Tennessee's leading passer in 2017 was redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, while the leading receiver that year was sophomore Brandon Johnson. Due to a unique decision made by Johnson last September, the two could lead the Vols in those respective categories again for a program on much more solid footing.

Using an NCAA rule that was implemented before the 2018 season, Johnson played the first four games last year before electing to redshirt, which protected his eligibility and enabled him to be a fifth-year senior now.

"I'm definitely confident it will turn out to be the right decision for me," Johnson said on a recent Zoom call. "It wasn't just a decision for myself. It was a decision for my team. I felt like I would be better suited to help my team out this year, and I don't regret anything."

The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Johnson arrived in Knoxville as a 2016 three-star signee out of American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida. He played in nine games as a freshman, collecting seven receptions for 93 yards, with five of those catches occurring in the 55-0 thrashing of Tennessee Tech.

An opportunity opened for a bigger stage in 2017 when Jauan Jennings suffered a season-ending wrist injury in the opening 42-41 outlasting of Georgia Tech in double-overtime. Johnson stepped up and had 37 receptions for 482 yards and a touchdown, but that was overshadowed by Tennessee's collapse down the stretch in which the Vols were outscored 122-51 by the closing trio of Missouri, LSU and Vanderbilt.

The tandem of Marquez Callaway and Jennings developed in 2018, when Johnson's production dipped to just 14 catches for 132, and continued early last season. Johnson's top highlight in his limited action a year ago was a 24-yard touchdown return of a blocked punt during the 45-0 trouncing of the University of Chattanooga.

Tennessee's win over the Mocs was the third game of the season, with the fourth contest being the 34-3 loss at Florida. Johnson was a spectator the rest of the way.

"It wasn't fun sitting back and watching my teammates go to battle every game last season, but now that we're getting so close to game time, I'm excited," Johnson said. "I can't wait to go. I think that time off really just helped me take a step back and look at the game from the outside in, so to speak. It really allowed me to kind of get my game in order as far as mentally.

"You can never stop working in the game of football. There's so much you can do to improve yourself, whether it be mentally or physically, so I've just been working all around."

Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said that Johnson and fellow senior Josh Palmer are the unquestioned leaders of the receiver room, which is overrun by freshmen following the departures of Callaway (New Orleans) and Jennings (San Francisco practice squad) to the NFL. Johnson believes Guarantano "has the respect of everybody on the team" and will save his best for last as well.

When asked what he improved the most during his time away from the action, Johnson didn't hesitate.

"My confidence level," he said. "That's the No. 1 thing. I'm so excited just to get back out there and play. I can't wait."

 

HOMEWORK DONE

Tennessee senior left guard Trey Smith has already done the homework when it comes to his health being affected by the coronavirus.

The preseason All-America pick was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs in February 2018 and went on blood-thinning medication for six months. Smith started the first seven games of the 2018 season, but the clots returned the week of the South Carolina game, and he was shut down for the year.

Smith was cleared before the start of last season and played in all 13 games, including 12 starts.

"In terms of my health personally, there are actual standards in my age group of how people are affected, and I'm not affected any differently," Smith said Tuesday afternoon on a Zoom call. "I've been reading up on COVID-19 and that it can cause blood clots, so if a regular person gets COVID-19, they're at a higher risk for a blood-clotting disorder than I am due to the nature that I actually take my medicines."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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Tennessee receiver Brandon Johnson

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