published Monday, August 18th, 2014

A.J. Johnson comfortable showing the way to UT Vols' young linebackers

  • photo
    A.J. Johnson is entering his senior year at Tennessee. The linebacker says he’s ready to show young players the ropes.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — As Tennessee's menacing middle linebacker, A.J. Johnson already generates a fairly imposing shadow.

The senior's silhouette has been a little bit bigger this month, though.

Johnson is the lone proven veteran among the Volunteers' young linebackers, and the likes of freshman Dillon Bates, Elliott Berry and Gavin Bryant have made sure they're never too far from one of Tennessee's undisputed team leaders.

And that's just fine with the 6-foot-2, 245-pound two-time All-SEC selection.

"I'm a senior, and I'm a leader of the team," Johnson said last week. "That's what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to look up to me and see how it goes.

"If I'm on the sideline, I'm going to be jumping up and down, making sure we're staying hyped. If somebody's not jumping up and down, they can look at me and say, 'Oh, he's jumping up and down and staying hyped, I think I need to be doing that.' That's the role that a leader should do."

Second-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said earlier in the Vols' training camp that Bates is "always finding" Johnson in team meetings or during practice, and Johnson said he's had Bryant for a roommate during camp.

"He's always energetic, he's always on the field, and he's always involved in something," Bates said. "Whenever a big play happens, he runs after the person and congratulates them. He keeps them accountable.

"In the meeting room, he'll turn around and talk to you about what you messed up on and really talk to you and look after you and what you're doing. He's a big help, and he's really a great asset to this team."

The Vols need Johnson to be more disruptive on the field this season and help fill a leadership void both on and off it, and it's probably helped Johnson that he's had a few younger linebackers, sophomores Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Kenny Bynum included, in practices and meetings with him.

"I'm just trying to show them the way," Johnson said. "By me going my hardest, they can see how it's done, and they can learn the plays. Gavin comes up to me and asks me questions about a play. Just yesterday, he was coming up to me and asking me about six or seven plays. I'm able to talk to him and let him know, 'You should do this,' or, 'You shouldn't do that.'"

With so much youth at linebacker, Tennessee has picked its spots with Johnson throughout preseason practice. He was basically held out of the Vols' first preseason scrimmage and, after participating in most of the second scrimmage, got an early night off in Saturday night's open scrimmage.

"There's a lot of young guys who (have never) played college football," Johnson said, "and they're going to need the most reps they can get in the scrimmages and out here in practice. They need the most reps they can get so they can get prepared to play in a game."

The move also makes Johnson lead from afar, and Jones, who likes to say he wants to see "player-led teams," noted after one practice this month how pleased he was that Johnson rallied Tennessee's defense midway through the practice.

Johnson started as a freshman, so he can relate to Bates and Berry, two freshmen who figure to play prominent early roles for Tennessee's defense, and it's clear from talking to the Vols' other linebackers how much respect they have for him.

"I know I can look to A.J. when I need to be in line," Reeves-Maybin said. "It's kind of a veteran feel, but I feel like a young guy when I'm talking to A.J.

"Knowing he's right there beside me just makes me elevate my game to a whole new level, because I know when I'm beside him, I can't let him down because he's not going to let me down."

Tennessee tidbits

After canceling Sunday afternoon's previously scheduled practice, the Vols will return to Haslam Field today before breaking Tuesday and Wednesday, when fall semester classes start. ... Jones said following Saturday night's open practice the Vols would know more about defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry's left leg injury on Sunday, and a full update is expected after today's practice. ... Receivers Vic Wharton and Johnathon Johnson missed the practice, and Johnson wore a boot on his left foot. ... As expected, Defensive end Curt Maggitt (ankle) also didn't participate on Saturday night, and offensive tackle Dontavius Blair missed most of it after being shaken up early in practice.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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