March 27, 2012
It's the unknown possibilities that lie ahead of Johnson that has those around the program excited.
"He has a lot of confidence in his abilities," Dooley said. "I don't think the light ever came on schematically (last year), but he's a football player. Good football players find their way to the ball when they're on defense and that's what he does. He has a long way to go in being a good football player, who has been blessed with a lot of ability and then translating that to playing the best he can play.
"But he could be a special player. He could. It's a lot of mental work. You can't just show up and play ball. He can show up, play ball and be good. But he has a chance to be really good. That's going to require a lot of mental work."
In his rookie season alone, Johnson was second on the Vols with 80 tackles, a figure that ranked tops among SEC freshmen.
The five-time freshman All-America honoree spent the off-season putting in the work to go from `good' to `really good.'
"We were up in the film room almost every night or every other night," Johnson said. "We would go watch film as a unit trying to learn the new defense."
With new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri settling in, the Vols will implore a 3-4 base defense moving forward, a transition that should benefit Johnson.
"I think some of the things we were doing with him last year exposed him a little bit in space," Dooley said. "I think how we have kind of structured this defense, it's going to be able to utilize his strengths more often. A.J. is a good player in any scheme. He's a good player. What we have to do is make sure, how can we get him to be the most productive player he can be?"
One of just four true freshmen to rank within the top two on his team in tackles among all D-I FBS schools, Johnson is looking forward to taking the next step.
"Now that I have been here for a season, I understand the speed of the game much better," Johnson said. "I can see everything (develop) much quicker than when I first got here. I think in the long run this will be a better fit for me because in this defense the linebackers have the ability to make more plays."
NO TINY OPPORTUNITY
Rising sophomore Antonio "Tiny" Richardson had to sit through a year of learning in his rookie season with the Vols. A four-star recruit coming into to Knoxville, Richardson saw most of his time on the kick-blocking unit in 2011.
"It was a reality check," said Richardson in reflecting on his freshman season. "I thought I was going to come in and get a better opportunity that I did. But I didn't. It humbled me a little more. I was able to sit in the background and learn from the other guys."
The 2012 season figures to be a different one for the Nashville native as the 6-6, 329-pound lineman has gained a lot of experience and confidence heading into spring practice.
"Physically, I feel great, I had a good offseason," said Richardson. "I had a lot of time to learn. Last year was all mental for me. I learned a lot and now that I know what I am doing, I am going to play fast. That was a thing last year, I wasn't able to play as fast. I have guys besides me that know what they are doing and they are helping me. It has been a good experience thus far."
Richardson is hopefully of getting an opportunity to start this fall, but knows that will only come with hard work. That is starting to show with an increase in the Vols' speed early on in camp.
"This off-season we have just been working hard," said Richardson. We were watching the film yesterday from (last season's) Alabama game, watching (and seeing) everybody has just gotten faster. Working hard has really started to pay off."
He had gained a great deal of knowledge from working with upperclassmen such as Dallas Thomas, Ja'Wuan James and Carson Anderson. Richardson has spent a lot of time studying film to improve his technique and skills.
"I get to see it from everyone else's perspective," said Richardson. "This is what I can do to get better. I'm getting Ja'Wuan's perspective, Dallas' perspective, Carson's perspective. All of these guys that have been here and done it. I really appreciate them taking the time and helping me out."
Thomas has embraced the relationship with Richardson and has taken time to work with him.
"We always help each other out on everything," said Thomas, who will be a senior in the fall. "We watch film together, we go over calls. When he is on the field I help him with calls, and make sure he is on the right page as everyone else. It is a give and take. He helps me out sometimes and I help him too."
The Vols' offensive line is far from set as new position coach Sam Pittman is using different combinations.
"We have been working really hard as a unit," said Richardson. "Coach is doing a lot of work switching people from position to position. There are no positions that are set right now. We have just been going back and forth with me and Dallas switching. Getting some guys time at different positions to see where we are."
PUTTING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE
The Vols know they have quite a bit of experience returning in the secondary, but still have a lot of work to do this spring to determine the exact mix of players and positions that will give them the best opportunity to be successful.
"We have a lot of bodies," Dooley said. "Don't confuse the word depth with being good. Depth means we have a lot of guys with some good skill sets that we can try to figure out who our best four or five guys are. I don't know the answer to that. It's going to be a real puzzle back there because we have about 10 or 12 guys competing for five spots."
The five projected starters at the four positions have a combined 58 starts on the defensive side of the ball among them, led by senior Prentiss Waggner who has started 27 contests at either safety or corner in the first three years of his collegiate career.
"I feel like I'm an old guy back there, me and my roommate Rod Wilks," Waggner said. "We feel a whole lot better compared to last year. I think this year we have a lot more depth and I think we have a couple more guys coming in. I think that depth is going to carry over into the fall and get all of those guys ready."
That increased depth in the secondary has allowed Waggner to return to his more natural position at corner, but don't expect him to stop giving advice to the safeties just yet.
"I'm back at full-time corner since the new coaching coaches got here," Waggner said. "I learned those plays and learned the keys and I'm based at corner but I'm going to learn that whole defense. If there is anything I see out there to help the safeties out, I'm going to learn the safeties (position) also. I'm trying to help out Rod and Brian Randolph as much as I can."
The willing recipient of much of that advice is sophomore safety Brian Randolph, who made a tremendous impact in his freshman campaign, finishing fifth on the team with 55 tackles.
"Having a player like Prentiss is like having another coach," Randolph said. "It is amazing how well he picks up the game. If we ever have any questions then we can just ask him. That is a big advantage for (the DBs)." Like Waggner, another player happy to have a set position is fellow senior Rod Wilks who has bounced between offense and defense over his career before settling in at safety last season, recording 26 tackles in 12 games. That experience is something he feels will give him a leg up this spring.
"I learned from my mistakes last year," Wilks said. "It helped me tremendously because last year I went in and was slow with some things. I was like a rookie because I hadn't played much and it was a lot faster than what I had seen in the past in high school. I learned from it, kept my mistakes in my head and made sure that I was going to be focused this year. It helped me out because I am faster now and I know what people do and how they do it."
DAY 2 AND LOOKING AHEAD
Dooley was pleased with Tennessee's second day of work in the 2012 spring session, but as the Vols move forward, so will the workload.
"We had a good day today," Dooley said. "Here's what starts happening now, it's the multiples. We put a lot in every day. The other side of the ball puts a lot in every day. It just keeps growing and growing, the amount of mental decisions that you have to make. It's hard on the young guys, but it's kind of whole-part, whole-teaching. You throw a lot at them. You see what sticks, then you kind of pick up the pieces and you throw some more at them. "
There are a few key factors when determining how much the Vols can handle and when to `see what sticks.'
"Number one, you have to recognize it takes an incredible amount of mental energy and mental effort to be a good football player," Dooley said. "That's investing a lot of time when you're not on the field.
"The second thing that's important - and I told the team this - is making sure you understand what is said and you're not focused on how it's said. In a practice, coaches are screaming. You're hollering and you're making mistakes. So many young players get affected by how the message is getting passed onto them and not what the message is.
"The final thing is not getting frustrated. I think a lot of these guys who are new out here are getting frustrated by the mistakes. They can't get frustrated. You have to learn a little bit every day. The cumulative effect over time is going to pay dividends for them. That's all a work in progress. It was a good second day. The more important thing is we'll have a better feel for our team come Thursday when we put the pads on."
Tennessee is looking to develop a winning edge when the Vols strap shoulder pads on Thursday in a way that was missing last season.
"Physicality on both sides of the ball and really at every position," Dooley said of what he'll be looking for Thursday. "We got whipped too many times at the line of scrimmage last year. There's nothing more important than playing fast and physical. That can make up for a bad step. That can make up for the wrong technique. If you're a physically tough football team, then generally you have a better chance to win."