March 11, 2014
By Alex Cate KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- Returning to Tennessee wasn't an easy decision for Vols senior linebacker A.J. Johnson. There were many positives in making the jump to the NFL but ultimately the lure of one more year on Rocky Top kept him in Knoxville.
Several reasons kept Johnson from making the move to professional football including personal and team goals. With more than 300 career tackles at Tennessee, the first team All-SEC linebacker still feels he has plenty to prove with Team 118.
"When I was getting recruited I always said I wanted to win the SEC, I wanted to go to a national championship," Johnson said. "Those goals I can reach. I know they're not impossible goals I can reach. I want to be one of the best players coming out. I came back for those and just to build and I love Tennessee. Who would want to leave Tennessee early when you've got one year left and a big thing - my mom is going to like this - I get to graduate in December so that's always great to hear."
According to him, Johnson was told he could have been drafted in the "third or fourth round." Instead he'll look to repeat some of the honors he received in 2013 and add to his illustrious career at Tennessee.
"You only get a certain amount of time to play at Tennessee," he said. "You can play forever in the league. I might as well come back my senior year and have some fun with it."
Included on both the Bednarik Watch List as the nation's best defensive player and the Butkus Watch List as the top linebacker, Johnson will have a shot at grabbing those awards in 2014. Plus, he will have that chance while playing alongside the man he had called his 'brother,' Curt Maggitt who is back after an injury kept him sidelined in 2013.
"It'll be a great feeling. Me and Curt Maggitt say we're going to be unstoppable," he said. "That's our goal, to be unstoppable and have a good defense and play together and have fun, I know that's one big thing - wake up every morning and have fun. It's always a blessing to be playing some football."
Although the decision was tough, Johnson said the coaches didn't put any pressure on him.
"The coaches wanted me to come back and I think they helped me was made me want to come back," he said. "They weren't bugging me too much. They were just letting me clear my thoughts up and see what's best for me."
Head Coach Butch Jones knows the play-making ability that Johnson possesses, now he's ready to see him lead alongside Maggitt.
"He can [be a leader], he just has to learn how to do that," Jones said. "He is a work in progress. Just like everyone else but I expect a lot from A.J. There is one thing he does, A.J. does bring it every day. I expect him now to be more vocal with other players around him. Curt and him have to feed off of each other. That is what great leaders do."
Johnson also talked about some of the goals he sees for himself in his senior campaign. Also he's eclipsed the 300 tackle mark, he wants to improve on creating turnovers and wreaking havoc for opposing quarterbacks.
"I know one thing, I've only had one sack since I've been here so that's one thing I'm hunting for," Johnson said. "If I can get some sacks and if somebody throws the ball around me I've got to get the pick. I haven't had one of those yet. Those are two things I've been working to reach in the game."
After failing to put much pressure on opposing signal callers, Tennessee will utilize Johnson in rushing the passer out of nickel formations - something that excites Johnson.
"That was a big emphasis for our coaching staff," he said. "We're drawing up plays for stuff like that and more schemes for getting more pressure on the quarterback so that's one thing that's going to help us."