KNOXVILLE — The legend of Alexander James Johnson began long before he stepped on the campus of the University of Tennessee or played a single snap at linebacker in orange.
How far back you have to go, though, is up for debate.
Perhaps it all started for the player known as "A.J." during his freshman season at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, a mere 42-mile drive from Sanford Stadium, where the chiseled 240-pound Johnson and the Volunteers face fifth-ranked Georgia on Saturday afternoon.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller knew Johnson would play varsity as a ninth-grader, but it took four or five games before Johnson really made his mark — and what a mark.
"The score at the time was 35-35," Miller recalled in a phone interview this week. "In the middle of the third quarter, our defensive coordinator comes to me and says, 'Look, can I put A.J. in? We can't stop them.' We put A.J. in, and they didn't score another point.
"The next week he started in his first varsity game and made 16 tackles."
Football was a big part of Johnson's life well before that night. He said he's been playing the game "since I could run." He first played organized football in a local "parks and rec" league at age 9 and spent hours before then playing pickup games with his two older brothers, one younger brother and an older cousin.
By the time he got to the sixth grade, Johnson weighed 160 pounds. He was on the wrestling team and played running back and linebacker on the football field. He grew up admiring NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, former Tennessee great Leonard Little and linebacker Ray Lewis, the longtime Baltimore Ravens star.
By the time Johnson hit high school, he already had a moniker he still likes today: "Beast."
"The first thing I ever noticed about A.J., and it was even before he played, was he was a tremendous competitor," Miller said. "He loved to compete. It didn't matter if it was in checkers -- he just loved to compete. If he was doing an agility drill as a ninth-grader with a senior, he was going all out to beat him. He wasn't intimidated by anybody."
As he entered his junior season at Gainesville, Johnson already was getting a lot of attention from colleges. Multiple Southeastern Conferences schools, including Alabama, Florida and Auburn, came calling, but the one that didn't stood out. The home-state Bulldogs never made an offer to Johnson, a four-star prospect rated as a top-150 player overall and top-10 inside linebacker by Rivals.com.
"I know growing up, that's where I wanted to play," he said. "They really weren't recruiting me, so I didn't really care about it too much. I expected them to recruit me, but they didn't.
"I was like, 'Oh, well, move on to the best school for me.' Tennessee was the best school for me. No hard feelings."
Johnson committed to Tennessee as a junior after attending the Vols' 45-19 home thrashing of Georgia in 2009, but he reopened his recruitment when coach Lane Kiffin left for Southern Cal. Nearly 11 months after the first pledge, he reaffirmed to Tennessee.
Though their official visits were a week apart, Curt Maggitt didn't enter the story until four months after both signed with Tennessee.
"When I got here, we met and we clicked from day one," said the Florida native.
A couple of months after meeting, Maggitt and Johnson became the first two true freshmen to start at linebacker in the history of Tennessee's program. They combined to form a talented, dreadlocked duo on the field and half of a two-room suite at Gibbs Hall, the main dorm for freshman football players, with tailback Marlin Lane and safety Geraldo Orta. The four now live together in Vol Hall, a university owned apartment-style residence hall three blocks from Neyland Stadium.
Despite being a first-year player who admitted he didn't have complete grasp of the defense, Johnson finished second on the 2011 team with 80 tackles and earned numerous Freshman All-America honors. His offseason goal was to increase his speed, so he trimmed some freshman fat.
He ranks himself the third-biggest film-room junkie among Tennessee's linebackers behind Maggitt and senior Herman Lathers and admits he's trying to spend as much time as he can mastering his position and the Vols' new defense.
"He gets in there," Maggitt said. "He wants to learn it. You can see his hunger for it and his hunger to understand it.
"If he has a question, he's asking that question no matter how crazy that question is. He's always trying to learn it. He's doing a real good job at it."
Physically, Johnson's abilities are undeniable. Coach Derek Dooley first raved about Johnson early in preseason practice in August 2011, and it's continued this season. When asked if Johnson could throw a pass from the short-yardage wildcat package the Vols installed for him earlier this season, Tennessee's third-year coach replied, "He can do anything ... he's A.J."
With a team-leading 31 tackles and two touchdown runs from the wildcat, Johnson's impact in his sophomore season already is greater. In the last two weeks, he's had the fourth and fifth double-digit tackle games of his 16-game career. The offensive package that requires him to take a direct snap, find a hole and gain some tough yards is an added dimension.
Johnson did it at Gainesville, and Miller recalled a game when the Red Elephants ran off the final eight minutes of the game to preserve a seven-point lead by running Johnson 15 consecutive plays.
"When they put him in the wildcat against Florida, I went crazy," Miller said. "My wife and I were watching the game by ourselves in our living room, and I started yelling. The fact that he moved in and started as a freshman up there didn't surprise us at all."
Defensively, Johnson's instincts that always have him near the ball are his best trait, and players and coaches say when he gets his hands on runners, they're not going anywhere.
"He's a ballhawk," Maggitt said. "Just his ability to get off blocks, avoid blocks -- even if he's not using the right technique, he knows how to get to the ball. Some people know the techniques but still can't physically get there, but A.J., he can get to the ball and he can make those plays."
When he gets to the player with the ball, Johnson gets to satisfy his desire for contact and occasionally show he remembers a few moves from his wrestling days. His hit along the sideline on the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Jeff Driskel sent the Florida quarterback flying into an unfortunate western North Carolina newspaper photographer who broke his leg in the collision. Later against the Gators, Johnson tracked down Omarius Hines after reading a swing pass, grabbed him by the collar and slammed him to the turf, drawing collective oohing from the Neyland Stadium crowd.
Lane had seen enough of that before then and made a plea to his roommate.
"I told him if he ever grabbed me like that, if he's going to pick me up, don't slam me," Lane said. "I try not to let him pick me up. He's always around the ball.
"He's a slippery guy. When you pull around to try to block him, he just gets around. He'll be there all the time and make some yelling noise to let us know he's right there."
During preseason camp, first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri called Johnson and Maggitt two of the best young linebackers he's coached . And Sunseri spent six years in the NFL and put multiple linebackers in the NFL in three years at Alabama.
As good as Sunseri believes Johnson is now, the fiery coach sees even more potential.
"I hope I think I had something to do with it, you know what I mean?" Sunseri said. "Some players ... have a natural ability to know where the ball's going and being there. He's made a lot of plays for us in the first four games here, and I'm hoping he keeps on making it.
"My thing with A.J. is I want him to get better and better every single week, whether it's declaring the fronts [or] making sure people are in the right gaps. I want him to be a student of the game, and when you have a middle linebacker that understands and knows it, it's going to prosper for him down the road. When you go the NFL, it's putting yourself in position to make plays."
Regardless of where it started, the legend of A.J. Johnson appears to be only beginning.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...