Tennessee LB Johnson emerging as leader of defense
One year after leading the Southeastern Conference in tackles,
Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson wants to become a better leader
of his own defense.
Johnson made 138 tackles last season and averaged 11.5 per game
to finish fourth among all Football Bowl Subdivision players, but
he couldn’t stop Tennessee’s defense from ranking statistically
among the worst in school history.
Tennessee’s new coaching staff doesn’t particularly care whether
Johnson repeats as the SEC’s tackling leader. They just want
Johnson to make sure Tennessee’s defense improves.
”We’ve challenged him,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
”He’s the alpha male of the defense. He’s the leader. What made
Ray Lewis, Ray Lewis? He owned the defense. He took ownership.
That’s what we expect from the middle linebacker of our
Johnson’s received the message.
He isn’t spending the preseason talking about how many tackles
he wants to make or how many records he wants to break. Johnson
instead discusses how he can make Tennessee a winner again.
”I know tackles are going to come here and there,” Johnson
said. ”The main thing is just winning, everyone going out there
and getting their assignments done. Tackles are going to
Last season, senior linebacker Herman Lathers was the vocal
leader of Tennessee’s defense. Now that Lathers has graduated,
Johnson is asserting himself more.
”It’s something you’ve got to do every day, come out and go 100
percent and talk to your teammates and inspire people,” Johnson
said. ”Make sure you’re not lacking, and if you see someone
lacking, pick them up and get them back going.”
Johnson’s teammates have noticed the difference.
”He’s been stepping up, speaking more and getting people on
track,” senior linebacker Brent Brewer said. ”A couple of other
people have stepped up too. He’s making our defense a lot better
and everybody’s following. He led by example (before). He always
went out there, played hard and did the right thing when coaches
asked him to, but he wasn’t a big talker.”
Johnson, a junior from Gainesville, Ga., also has adjusted his
game to fit the new staff’s philosophy.
During his first two years at Tennessee, Johnson showed he’s one
of the nation’s most prolific tacklers. Linebackers coach Tommy
Thigpen marvels at Johnson’s ”uncanny knack” for playing through
But the Vols aren’t concerned about his overall tackle totals
and instead want Johnson to produce more big plays while working
within the system. Johnson had 8 1/2 tackles for loss last season.
He has only one forced fumble, one sack and no interceptions in his
”The way we’re going to be successful is by playing team
defense, everybody doing their job – every man 1-11 – each and
every single play,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said.
”That’s how we’ve approached it with A.J. as well as all the
players on our defense. It’s not just one guy running around making
130-140 tackles and (us) playing lousy defense. It’s about the team
and playing team defense. That’s been our emphasis.”
Jancek said Johnson has done everything the staff has asked of
him. Johnson savored the opportunity to learn from one of
Tennessee’s all-time best leaders last week when Al Wilson – an
All-America linebacker on the 1998 national championship team –
spoke to the team.
Johnson called the meeting with Wilson ”a blessing” and said
the former NFL star told him to keep playing hard and keep
”We talk about alpha males and beta males – alpha males being
the lions of the jungle and the betas being the hyenas – Al Wilson
is the ultimate alpha,” Thigpen said.
Johnson wants to be thought of in similar terms someday.
NOTES: Jones said he’s ”a long ways away” from naming a
starting quarterback. He praised the Friday practice performance of
freshman Riley Ferguson, who is competing with junior Justin
Worley, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and freshman Joshua
Dobbs. ”We don’t have a starting quarterback right now, so don’t
put words in my mouth, but I thought that he showed some poise,”
Jones said. ”The thing I liked about him was his pocket presence.
He doesn’t get rattled.”… Tennessee’s Saturday night practice
session at Neyland Stadium is open to the public.