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

defense.”

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

come.”

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

traffic.

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

career.

”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

leading.

”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.