No, no, not THAT AJ...this one is A.J. With two periods.
If Bama fans don't know who he is by now, said fans either a) purposely disregard anything or anyone wearing orange or b) are wholly ignorant of SEC football. But that head-in-the-sand bliss will certainly end this week, as Tennessee's most veteran defender (and one of only a handful of potential NFL hopefuls on the UT roster) will be doing his best to knock the Crimson Tide off its newly-gained stride in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Johnson (who wears #45) is easily the most seasoned member of the Vol defense (34 starts over a four year career), but it's not that veteran quality alone that makes him the lynch-pin of the UT defense. Johnson is a legitimate mid-round (or better) pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, as he combines good speed, elite quickness for a LB and a high football IQ into an All-American caliber package at inside linebacker.
This year, Johnson is primed to improve his draft stock while leading the Vols back to the Promised Land of SEC credibility. As a steady fixture on All-SEC and All-American rosters the last several years, it's not hard to see why opposing offenses who don't know about Johnson discover his abilities soon after engagement.
Who in the heck is A.J. Johnson?
The 6'2", 242 pound Johnson is literally the backbone of the Vols' defensive attack, which has struggled mightily in recent years due to depreciation of overall talent level. Signed as a four-star linebacker prospect out of Gainesville High School in Gainesville, GA, Johnson immediately made his presence known, starting as a freshman and proving himself a consensus Freshman All-American by the close of the opening stanza of his career. In fact, Johnson earned Freshman All-American honors from five awarding bodies, breaking the previous Tennessee record set by former UT safety Eric Berry in 2009. And the kudos were well-deserved, as Johnson recorded 78 tackles in seven games, along with eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
Johnson built upon his freshman performance in 2012 and 2013, earning All-SEC and All-American honors in both seasons. As a sophomore, Johnson played in all 12 games, recording 106 tackles, 8.5 tfls, a fumble recovery and three passes broken-up. Johnson made UT history in 2013 by becoming the first defender since the 1990-1991 seasons to record back-to-back 100 tackle seasons, notching 138 tackles last season along with a sack, 8.5 tfls and eight quarterback hurries.
This year, Johnson is once again off and running, having piled up 80 tackles through only seven games, along with 4.5 tfls. In 2014, Johnson set another career milestone by becoming the Vols' career leader in assisted tackles with 199. He is also currently fourth on the list of all-time career tackle leaders at Tennessee with 400 heading into Saturday's match-up with perennial foe Alabama. Johnson's name appears on just about every watch list known to mankind (Butkus, Lombardi, Nagurski, Bednarik) in addition to earning first-team All-SEC and first team All-American honors.
The Communications major is projected this spring to go somewhere in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but with improved upper body strength in 2014, Johnson hopes to improve that rating dramatically. In the past, the knock against Johnson has been his upper body strength, a weakness in his game which has resulted in trouble shedding blocks once engaged. Johnson is rather lithe for an inside linebacker, a position that usually requires a fire-plug physique rather than Johnson's lighter, taller frame. Thus far in his career, Johnson has counted upon his quickness and ability to beat blockers to the point of attack to make plays. His technique is average, but what Johnson does well is use his slender frame to negotiate small gaps, beating blockers to the punch and finding the creases in blocking schemes before exploding through them to make the sure tackle. Johnson does have a tendency to drop his head preceding contact, however, which is fundamentally unsound but easily correctable for a player of Johnson's caliber.
Despite his somewhat lanky frame for the positional prototype, the linebacker has a reputation as a heavy hitter with great closing skills who routinely gets the audible "pop" when attacking opposing players. His speed isn't elite by any standard (4.79 in the 40), but it is more than adequate for an inside linebacker who routinely rushes the passer and who also must be called upon for pass defense.
Not only is Johnson Tennessee's most veteran and skilled defensive player, but because of his longevity and performance standard, he has ascended to the role of leader on head coach Butch Jones' hungry young squad. In the words of Jones himself, Johnson has turned a corner in his career, and the head coach expects big things out of him as the season wraps up.
"A.J. always has the drive, A.J. always has the work ethic, but I see a sense of urgency in him in terms of a sense of urgency he's putting on others around him. He's learning how to lead, and him and Curt feed off of each other. He's now holding others accountable for their actions. You can see that growth and that maturation process in terms of leadership really come through with A.J. He's a great football player. He has great instincts to get to the football. He brings it every single day. A.J. Johnson doesn't have bad practices. All you do is roll the footballs out there and he's ready to play football. The next evolution to his game is becoming a leader and being a voice, helping the other 10 individuals on the grass at the same time understand that we all represent the University of Tennessee, and he's done a great job of that to date."
Roommate and fellow defensive stalwart Curt Maggitt echoed Jones' sentiments, praising not only Johnson's work ethic and skill, but his ability to pull his teammates up and elevate their play as well.
"A.J. is durable. A.J. is a football player. He's strong, he's fast and he can play ball. All those accolades, he deserves them. His leadership, he's become a lot better of a leader. He used to be more of a 'I'm going to get my work in and be gone' kind of thing, but now he's affecting others. He's been influential, but he's affecting others on purpose. He's going to tell Jakob [Johnson], 'Let's do this,' or get Dillon Bates to do this or watch film. That's A.J. maturing."
For Tennessee, Johnson has evolved into the total package as a player and leader on a team that is short of both commodities.
What to expect from A.J. Johnson versus Alabama
In his final battle with the Vols' hated enemies to the South, one can assume that Johnson will hope to end his career with at least one victory over Alabama. The Vols haven't beaten Alabama during his tenure in Knoxville, and Alabama can expect him to play with a high motor as a disruptive force as the literal and metaphorical heart of the Vol defense. In short, Bama will get Johnson's best game of the season, and possibly, of his career.
Johnson is at his best when he can "out-quick" opposing blockers. Even with improved upper body strength in 2014, he has shown difficulty in shedding blocks against power running teams, particularly those with active fullbacks/ H-backs. Though Alabama has at times struggled with blocking quick agile players such as Johnson, the Vols simply don't have enough around him to create the type of creases in the Tide's zone blocking scheme to give Johnson free reign. If Bama's offensive line can snare him up between the tackles, they will neutralize a great deal of what Johnson does best.
As Tennessee's best defensive player, expect to see him utilized just about everywhere: in run-support, in the pass rush, and in short-route pass coverage. Not many inside backers in the league have the physical talent to play all three roles, but Johnson will show up all over this weekend's stat chart.
That's not to say Johnson won't make his plays. He has proven himself effective as a pass rusher, as he has a nice first step and good anticipation. Despite his lean physique, he is surprisingly malevolent in run defense, anticipating gaps and loading up with heavy blows to break the will of opposing ball-carriers. This could be problematic if returning center Ryan Kelly is still dinged up and slowed, though the center of the Bama line looked resurgent against Texas A&M last weekend. If Johnson can find the creases between Bama's behemoths, he could create problems for both the Tide's running backs and quarterback Blake Sims.
Unlike many of the SEC's elite inside linebackers, Johnson is not a liability in coverage, and if Bama elects to target O.J. Howard, Brian Vogler and Jalston Fowler to any degree, expect to see Johnson in the vicinity.
Truthfully, A.J. Johnson won't be the David to Bama's Goliath all by his lonesome. If Tennessee had a supporting cast that could match Johnson's caliber, then Bama fans would be in for an antsy evening. However, Alabama's newfound thrust in the running game should be more than enough to suppress a depth-less Tennessee defense, even if Johnson records double-digit tackles in the game.