UT's A.J. Johnson not likely to have a second season of double duty

Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 8:57pm

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After producing one of the most unusual statistical accomplishments in recent college football history last year, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson doesn't expect to get a chance to repeat the feat.

Johnson led the Volunteers in tackles (138) and touchdown runs (six).

Although Johnson spent nearly all his time on defense, he also took snaps out of Tennessee's "Beast" formation in short-yardage situations and ran for 21 yards and six touchdowns on only 12 carries.

New Tennessee coach Butch Jones isn't saying whether he plans to use Johnson on offense this season, but the junior linebacker has his doubts.

"The coaches haven't said anything about it, so I don't think so," Johnson said.

For the time being, the Volunteers want Johnson to focus on improving a defense that ranked among the worst in school history last year.

Johnson led the Southeastern Conference in total tackles last year and ranked fourth nationally with 11.5 tackles per game. Johnson made 52 more tackles than anyone else on Tennessee's roster.

But he couldn't stop Tennessee's defense from giving up the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any SEC team.

Tennessee hadn't allowed that high a scoring average since 1893, when they gave up 42.7 points per game while playing a six-game schedule. Tennessee hadn't given up that many yards per game since at least 1950, the earliest year its sports information department has that statistic on file.

The Vols ranked 104th nationally in scoring defense and 107th in total defense.

"We know we aren't going to be the one (hundred) something defense," Johnson said. "That's not going to happen this year. We're going to come together as a team and just get better."

Jones' staff has used plenty of unique motivational techniques to fire up a team that has endured three straight losing seasons. At Tuesday's practice, the sound of a crying baby and blaring siren aired over the loudspeaker during red-zone drills in an attempt to improve the team's focus in hostile situations.

Their message to Johnson is that he must deliver more big plays.

Although Johnson was one of the nation's most prolific tacklers last season, Jones noticed that many of his stops came at least four or five yards downfield. The Vols won't mind if Johnson's tackle total drops this season, as long as he makes more of an impact.

"What we're preaching this year is not so much tackling as production," linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. "Would you rather have 80 tackles, nine sacks, three picks and a couple more tackles for loss? Or do you want just 100 tackles?"

Jones has asked Johnson to improve his "eye discipline," a term that Johnson describes as being able to see the whole formation rather than locking in on one person. Jones also wants Johnson to do a better job of shedding blocks.

Johnson also must step up as a leader, particularly as fellow linebacker Curt Maggitt recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Jones believes Johnson has delivered in that regard.

"In about the last week, I've seen him really respond not only on the field but off the field and in the intangibles and leadership we expect from our linebackers," Jones said.

The Vols have added speed to their linebacker corps by moving Brent Brewer over from cornerback. Tennessee coaches have praised Dontavis Sapp, a senior with only two career starts.

But there's no question Johnson is the biggest playmaker in the bunch. Now he's also becoming one of the biggest leaders.

"It was a new role for me," Johnson said. "In high school, everybody was a leader. Everybody wanted the best out of each other. You didn't have to talk that much. You were just out having fun. In this next level, you really need people to step up and start talking. I'm taking that role, to talk more and get into people's heads if they're messing up or telling them, 'Good job,' if they're doing right."

As he adjusts to this new role, Johnson expects to shed his old role as a part-time ball carrier. Although he hasn't ruled out the possibility of using Johnson on offense, Jones wants the linebacker concentrating on his primarily responsibilities.

"Right now, we want him focusing on defense, which is his job," Jones said. "I know he likes scoring touchdowns. He's already told me that. But the big thing is learning how to play winning football at the linebacker position and all the things that go into it."