Aug 31, 2013
By Brian Rice
The image of A.J. Johnson flying at you is scary enough when the setting is a football field, with full pads and a helmet providing protection from the pending collision. Remove the pads, the helmet, the crowd and the lush green grass and replace it all with nothing more than a boat, a life jacket and a river in the Smoky Mountains, and the fear factor is turned up a notch.
It's a scene that played out this summer for defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who found himself a target for Johnson at the end of a teambuilding rafting trip in the mountains.
"When we got out on the lake, we had a tackling drill by trying to knock people off their rafts," Johnson said reflecting back on his memorable moment from one of the team's many offseason events designed to help build tea chemistry. "I got to hit Big Dan, I will probably never get to hit him again."
Johnson enters the 2013 season as Tennessee's defensive leader from the linebacker position. A season ago, he led the Volunteers and the SEC with 138 tackles, a mark that was good for fourth on the NCAA leaderboard and was the best season by a Vol since Jerod Mayo recorded 140 in 2007.
With the departure of fellow linebacker Herman Lathers to graduation after last season, Johnson looks forward to taking Lather's leadership role in the Tennessee defense.
"I embrace it a lot," Johnson said of being a leader for UT. "It hasn't been very hard to take because I have older guys beside me. They have been stepping up and talking as well. I know I am the MIKE linebacker and I have to make the calls. You are simply out there just doing your job and having fun with the guys."
Johnson also led Tennessee in rushing touchdowns - yes you read that right - with six TDs out of UT's "Beast" package, where Johnson lined up at quarterback in short-yardage situations. In all, Johnson carried the ball 12 times for 21 yards and those six scores.
Though Butch Jones hasn't yet announced if the "Beast" package would be unleashed for a second go-around, Johnson said he appreciates the little things that Jones and his staff have brought to the Tennessee program.
"Coach Jones came in here with a lot of passion," Johnson said. "That is what you need out there playing. You have to have passion out on the field. If you aren't playing for anything then it is pointless. I think he came here and brought a lot of passion to the team and brought the best out of all of us."
As an upperclassman, making a transition to his third different defensive system in three seasons has been difficult. But Johnson credited defensive coordinator John Jancek and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen with easing the transition and getting him ready for a big season in 2013.
"Our defense is simpler this year," he said of the transition. "We have to work hard and have a check here and there. We are just lining up and playing. We know the call, and everyone knows what they have to do to make plays."