Nov. 1, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
Last Monday, A.J. Johnson walked off the stage at Tennessee's weekly press conference after speaking to reporters. The freshman linebacker was simple and to the point, very cautious with his words.
When he stepped off the stage, he received a pat on the back and smile from a teammate.
"Great job," said senior Austin Johnson.
The freshman shook his head and smiled.
The reserved posture Tennessee's first-year linebacker is rare, according to head coach Derek Dooley. He said Johnson goes all-out, all the time, no matter the score.
"He's been great," Dooley said. "We talked about not getting affected, and it's not always just youth. It really isn't. A.J. and Curt (Maggitt), they haven't been affected. We're down 20-6 (at Alabama), it doesn't bother them. I think it's a competitive character that some guys have, there's a competitive character that some guys develop, and there's a competitive character that some guys never have.
"You've got some who can never do it, meaning mentally competing when it gets tough. Some guys you can teach them how to do it, and they start figuring it out the more battles they are in. Then you've got some guys who do it, and he's one of those guys. That's the baller."
Johnson has made an immediate impact for the Vols at linebacker. Through Saturday's game against South Carolina, he has 57 tackles - enough to not only lead Tennessee in stops but to be the only freshman in all of Division I's Football Bowl Subdivision to lead his team in tackles.
And he's progressively gotten better. He had four total tackles in his first two games. Against the two best teams in the country, he collected 11 tackles against No. 1 LSU and 13 tackles against No. 2 Alabama. He led the Vols with a dozen stops on Saturday against South Carolina.
"I'm pleased," Johnson said. "When I first got here, I said I'd never learn this defense. It was just too much. As it's gone on, it's gotten easier and easier each game. I'm still not sure about everything, but I've got the basics down."
Playing linebacker at Tennessee isn't the same as playing in Gainesville (Ga.) High School, however. The quick learning also required some transition.
"High school was more about playing downhill and going where the ball is," Johnson said. "Now, you've got to make sure you get your assignment done before you run around to the ball. It's different."
His quick learning allowed him and classmate Curt Maggitt to become Tennessee's first true freshmen to start at linebacker.
"I think it helped a lot," Johnson said of having Maggitt play alongside him in their first season. "We're going through the same situation, coming in and starting as freshmen. We're going through the same steps and it's benefitted on the field and off the field. We talk a lot. I didn't know him before I got here, but we've developed a great relationship."
Austin Johnson, who is the Vols' starter at middle linebacker, helped facilitate the learning and bonding process.
"I'm glad Austin Johnson is here because he's helped me and Curt out a lot," A.J. Johnson said. "The first day, I was lining up and playing (weakside linebacker). I'd just be looking around wondering where I was supposed to go back in the summertime, and he'd tell me what I needed to do. He helped a lot. I'm glad he's here."
The way A.J. Johnson has performed, the Vols are glad he's here.
"I already said that line: `He's a baller, man,' " Dooley said. "Those baller guys, I don't have to lecture A.J. on not getting affected. Every play he tries to splatter the guy next to him."
More splattering may get some more pats on the back.