KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) For the second straight year, Tennessee is beginning its season by facing a veteran quarterback coming back from injury.
The 25th-ranked Volunteers hope they handle Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson as well as they contained Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton a year ago.
After leading Bowling Green to a Mid-American Conference title in 2013, Johnson injured his hip in the Falcons’ 2014 opener and missed the rest of the season. Now he’s feeling healthy again and eager for Saturday’s season opener at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.
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”There haven’t been any lingering effects with my hip at all,” Johnson said. ”I’m really, really, really excited to get back out there.”
Johnson threw for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2013 while also rushing for five scores. He showed his big-game ability by throwing for 393 yards and five touchdowns against Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game.
”He’s a winner,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ”He has the intangibles, brings very, very good leadership to their football program. (He) has won a lot of games for them.”
Tennessee was in a similar situation last year when it opened the season by facing Keeton, who was being billed by Utah State as a possible Heisman Trophy contender. Keeton had missed the final eight games of the 2013 season with a knee injury.
Facing pressure and looking rusty throughout the game, Keeton threw two interceptions and didn’t get Utah State beyond midfield until the second half of Tennessee’s 38-7 victory. Keeton hurt his left knee again two weeks later and would miss the remainder of the 2014 season.
Johnson said he’s back at 100 percent and feeling no ill effects from the hip injury, but the fifth-year senior also hasn’t been hit yet.
”That’s a difficult question to answer – how he’s going to withstand the physicality – because we haven’t seen him in live action in over a year,” Bowling Green coach Dino Babers said.
Because Johnson got hurt in the season opener, he didn’t get much of a chance to operate the fast-paced system Babers installed after arriving at Bowling Green last year. Bowling Green averaged 18.6 seconds per play last season. Baylor and Arizona were the only Football Bowl Subdivision offenses with faster tempos.
But Johnson said he’s ready to run this kind of system. Jones notes a long layoff sometimes can help a player in this regard.
”Sometimes when you miss a year for injury, you kind of go into coach mode, and a lot of times that can be beneficial to the development of a player,” Jones said. ”You start thinking in terms of a coach. You have more time to really study the nuances and ins and outs of the offense.”
Johnson said that’s exactly what he’s done.
”I was really able to understand this offense, the ins and outs of it, understand why we’re calling certain plays in certain situations,” Johnson said. ”I was able to carry that over into the spring, into the summer and throughout camp. I feel like I have a really good grasp of it mentally, and physically I feel like I’m right back where I was last year” before the injury.