HOOVER, Ala. — Among all the reasons, there was one singular notion that pushed Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson to return for a senior season in Knoxville.
"I came (to Tennessee) to be a winner and win," said Johnson, a consensus preseason All-American who toyed with the idea of entering the NFL Draft last May. "And I’ve got more one more season to do that. I want to leave a winner."
Indeed, Johnson and fellow seniors have one more shot to halt a Volunteers skid that includes four straight losing seasons, the worst such stretch of program futility in more than a century. That includes going 5-7 in 2013 in Butch Jones’ first season at the helm.
"It was a tough decision, one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make," Johnson said at SEC Media Days of not turning pro after leading the Vols with 106 tackles last season to push the career total to 324 for three years. "Growing up as a little kid — and I will never forget this — telling my mama I want to be in the NFL. And she was sitting there like, ‘Yes, baby, you are going to make it.’
"I had more priorities that I needed to have and what I needed to do to stay."
Johnson’s return for a senior season suits Jones just fine, especially considering he is already having to replace half the team’s roster, far more than the normal turnover of around one-third of personnel per season. Magnifying that is the Volunteers return zero starters to their defensive front, although fourth-year junior Curt Maggitt — Johnson’s close friend and roommate — returns to play both rush end and outside linebacker after missing last season with a lingering knee injury from late in 2012.
"We’re excited to have A.J. back," said Jones, whose team opens the season on Aug. 30 against Utah State. "He means so much to our football team, being our middle linebacker. He’s the quarterback of our defense."â¨
Along with attempting to get faster and stronger and improve pass cover skills that had him projected as a probable third-round draft pick, Johnson’s friendship with Maggitt and the chance to play together one last season also played a huge role in Johnson’s return.
"I think that had a part in it," Jones said of Johnson’s friendship with Maggitt. "They feed off of each other. The players feed off of these two because whether it’s in the weight room or on the field, they challenge each other. They have a great chemistry about themselves, and they expect and demand a lot from each other. One individual isn’t maybe holding up to what they expect, they let each other know."
In 2011, Maggitt had 56 tackles at outside linebacker, fourth-most by a Volunteers true freshman. But Maggitt missed much of 2012 and all of last season, but returns this year to help Johnson and a stellar secondary try to improve a defense that finished 11th in the SEC in total defense (418.4 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (29 points per game).
"I talked about it to (Johnson)," Maggitt said, "and I told him whenever he decided (to return), ‘I won’t let you down. I am going to go hard for you every day in practice and in the game.’ Just his presence around makes guys better, makes guys want to get better. I am pushing myself and other guys to let him know he stayed for a reason."
And that is to get the Volunteers to a winning season for the first time since 2009 and a bowl game for the first time since 2010. The last time Tennessee didn’t go to a bowl game over four seasons was from 1975-78.
"I won’t take none of the seasons back because you learn from it," the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Johnson said. "I learned these past three years that I can deal from it. Through storms and bads, you’ve always got ups. You’ve got to come up. That’s all you can do, just come up and win."
Last season, the Volunteers beat South Carolina 23-21 for a 4-3 start that included an overtime loss to Georgia the previous week. But they then lost four games in a row, the last of which was a 14-10 loss to rival Vanderbilt that went down to the wire before causing Tennessee to become bowl eligible again.
"We don’t dwell on the past," Johnson said. "We’re looking for the future. I know a couple inches here or a couple plays here, we’re just a couple plays short of making stuff happen. We have to make those plays happen this year.
With another standout season as projected, Johnson also can improve his draft status.
That’s something that Jones emphasizes with all his players.
"We try to start that process early on with the NFL education," Jones said. "We actually start seminars when they enroll and they become freshmen, not only with our players, our studentathletes, but also with their parents, kind of mentoring them. Each player has a different nuance or different dynamic of why they choose to leave early and declare themselves eligible for the National Football League draft."
Jones said Johnson made the correct decision football-wise to return for another season on the college level.
Johnson figures that all aspects of his game still needs improving.
"In my self-development, I am trying to improve everything, not just one part," Johnson said. "I try to do all the things I wasn’t as good at. I work on the little stuff every day. That’s the main thing you’ve got to do. You have to improve every day."