published Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Linebacker A.J. Johnson staying with Tennessee Vols

University of Tennessee junior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson breaks through two South Alabama players.
University of Tennessee junior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson breaks through two South Alabama players.
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones's second Tennessee football team got a big boost Tuesday.

A.J. Johnson, the Volunteers' All-SEC middle linebacker, told Tennessee's coaching staff he would return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft.

Jones, now in his second season as the Vols' coach, broke the news via his Twitter account.

"Love my Team and VolNation! Let's make this year one of the best!" Johnson posted on his own Twitter account later Monday afternoon.

A three-year starter, Johnson has posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons in the middle of Tennessee's defense. He's led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons, and the 6-foot-2, 243-pounder from Gainesville, Ga., led the Vols with 8.5 tackles for loss in 2013. Johnson has had 18 games of at least 10 tackles in his career.

The former four-star recruit, whose play really picked up late in the season, led the SEC in tackles in 2012 and finished third behind Georgia's duo of Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera this season.

"No question, he does have a decision to make," Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek said the week of Tennessee's season finale against Kentucky. "I think that's pretty obvious. It would be a tremendous impact to our program, and I think a great benefit to him personally, if he really takes a minute to step back and look at it."

Despite his production and the numerous SEC honors he's compiled at Tennessee, Johnson was projected as a mid-to-late round pick and may not have heard his name until the third day (the fourth through seventh rounds) of the draft in May.

Johnson is an elite defender against the run and thrives between the tackles, but he's struggled on occasion in pass coverage and chasing down sweeps and toss plays. Still, he's been Tennessee's best defender the past two seasons. He'll be reunited with fellow linebacker Curt Maggitt, who missed this season recovering from a torn ACL suffered late in 2012.

They give the Vols a pair of playmakers on a defense badly in need of them.

"Their leadership is really huge," Jancek said. "When you talk about them having the pulse of the team, those guys, when they say something, people are going to listen. That's going to be big."

Harris leaving Vols

Linebacker Christian Harris is leaving the program.

The Vols confirmed the redshirt sophomore's departure via their Twitter account Tuesday. It's likely Harris will transfer in search of more playing time at an FCS or Division II school, where he'd be immediately eligible.

"Christian Harris has informed us that he will not be returning to the Tennessee football program," tweeted UT's sports information office. "We thank Christian for his efforts here at Tennessee and wish him all the best in the future."

The 6-1, 240-pound Harris is the fourth player to leave the Vols since the 2013 season ended. Jones said at a December news conference that tailback Tom Smith, receiver Paul Harris and defensive back Tino Thomas also would not return to the program. Receiver Vincent Dallas and offensive lineman Alan Posey left in October.

After redshirting his first season in 2011, Harris tore his ACL during the following spring practice and didn't make his Tennessee debut until the third game of the season against Florida. In 10 games on special teams, he did not record a tackle. Harris played in all 12 games on special teams and as a reserve linebacker and finished with five tackles.

The Atlanta-area native signed with the Vols out of Etowah High School in Woodstock in 2011 as a three-star prospect and was the first commitment in the class.

Tennessee currently has six linebackers committed for its 2014 recruiting class. Dillon Bates, Kevin Mouhon and Gavin Bryant are rated as four-star prospects, as is junior college player Chris Weatherd. Jerome Dews is classified as an athlete, though linebacker most likely will be his collegiate position.

Jakob Johnson, a 6-3, 235-pounder from Jacksonville and originally from Germany, moved to campus this weekend and will begin class today with 13 other midterm enrollees.

Booth now says Indiana

Former Tennessee commitment Dominique Booth committed to Indiana on Tuesday night, a little more than a month after the receiver reopened his recruitment. The 6-foot, 205-pounder from Indianapolis was pledged to the Vols for more than four months. He is a four-star prospect, according to Rivals.com.

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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