Oct. 19, 2012
By Adam K. Moussa
Throughout the entirety of his football career, linebacker A.J. Johnson has prided himself on his ability to push past would-be blockers and strike opposing ball carriers with a physical presence unlike that of his peers.
"Every time that I step on the football field, I try to be the most reckless and physical player out there," said UT's 6-foot-2, 240-pound middle linebacker. "I just love hitting people. To me, there's no better feeling than picking up a running back and dumping him on his head."
Growing up in Gainesville, Ga., Johnson was ingrained with his affinity for impact hits an early age.
"I was raised with older brothers and older cousins. So, by the time that I was four or five years old, I was out in the yard playing tackle football with them, running people into the bushes and getting bruised up," said Johnson. "I was the always the youngest, so I learned that you have to stand up, be tough and hold your own. There's no doubt that constantly playing ball and competing in the neighborhood is what's made me the player that I am, today."
By the time Johnson reached his freshman year at Gainesville High School, he had refined his tackling technique to an alarming level.
"I can remember doing angle tackling drills at camp, and I hit a guy so hard that I broke his ribs," Johnson recalled. "That moment sort of took me by surprise. You never feel good about hurting a guy, but that's when I realized that my physicality was something special."
Upon culminating his prep career under the guidance of Coach Bruce Miller in 2010, Johnson had amassed over 460 tackles, 52 tackles for loss, 20 sacks, 12 forced fumbles and three interceptions.
Ultimately, Johnson's staggering statistics would earn him all-state honors on three separate occasions, All-America accolades as a senior and the attention of almost every big name college football coach in the country.
"The recruiting process was crazy," said Johnson. "I got a bunch of looks from teams throughout the country, but Tennessee was the first school to reach out and officially offer me."
"Truthfully, I didn't know a lot about Tennessee when I was growing up. But, after UT offered me, I started looking around and seeing Power Ts everywhere," Johnson recalled. "That really opened my eyes and made me see what I had been missing." Ranked as a consensus four-star recruit and one of the nation's most promising prospects, Johnson had his pick of practically every prominent football program in the NCAA. And while he found inquiries from Clemson, Florida and Alabama appealing enough to take on-campus visits, Johnson's appreciation for Tennessee's early offer ultimately made his signing day decision easy.
"I visited other schools, but I immediately fell in love with UT after they offered me," said Johnson. "The atmosphere on The Hill was so welcoming and home-like, and I could tell that the team really meant something special to the people in the community. Pretty early on in the process, I realized that UT was the place for me and I just couldn't wait to get to Knoxville."
Upon arriving on Rocky Top in the summer of 2011, Johnson didn't waste any time in making a positive first impression.
"As soon as A.J. stepped on campus, I knew that he was going to be something special," said redshirt senior linebacker Herman Lathers. "You don't see a lot of freshmen come in at his size, and on top of that, he has a knack for finding the football. His combination of size, speed and instincts set A.J. apart, and the guys took notice of that."
In addition to quickly gaining the respect of his teammates, Johnson joined Curt Maggitt in immediately rewriting Tennessee's record books, becoming the first true freshmen to start at linebacker in school history.
"To me, that's what was most impressive," said Lathers, a five-year UT veteran. "Think about the great linebackers that have played at UT over the years, guys like Al Wilson and Jerod Mayo, to accomplish something that those guys didn't do, that tells you what kind of talent and potential Curt and A.J. possess."
Throughout his rookie season, Johnson made starts in 10 of Tennessee's 12 outings, tallying 80 tackles, seven tackles for loss and one forced fumble, en route to earning first-team Freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers of America, Fox Sports, Yahoo! Sports, The Sporting News and Phil Steele.
Headlining Johnson's first collegiate campaign was the Volunteers' Oct. 22 trip to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama. Throughout the 2011 Third Saturday in October tilt, Johnson collected a then career-high 13 tackles, an accomplishment that wasn't lost on former Alabama assistant head coach and current UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
"When you watch A.J. play, you quickly realize that he is a special talent," Sunseri said. "He flies to the ball on every play, and the kid did a heck of a job last year. It takes a special type of guy to play through the grind of an SEC season, especially as a true freshman."
This year, Johnson has picked up where he left off as a freshman, registering 11 tackles in three consecutive contests, compiling a new career-high 21 hits last week at Mississippi State and accumulating 63 stops to lead all UT defenders.
"A.J.'s instincts, knowledge of where the ball is going and his ability to make plays, even if he has a blocker on him, is what separates him," said Sunseri. "He's the type of young man that you want to get involved as much as possible, because he is only going to get better and better."
As a sophomore this season, the bruising backer has extended his impact to the offensive side of the ball, quickly becoming the Big Orange's primary Wildcat formation weapon.
"Running the ball in the Wildcat is a lot of fun, and it's a good feeling to know that I can help the team in different ways," said Johnson. "I'm just grateful for all of the opportunities that I have had during my time here, and I'm happy to be able to contribute to the team in whatever way that I can."
"Looking back, I'm glad that Tennessee chose me, and that I chose Tennessee. UT began recruiting me early on in the process and it turned out to be a perfect fit. If I could, I would pick the Vols all over again. I've made a lot of memories and had a lot of fun being a Volunteer. In the end, I'm just glad that the coaches hit me up."