August 18, 2014

Sometimes there's 'crying in football'

Senior < b>A.J. Johnson had tears in his eyes when he stood before his defense and told them it wouldn't be tolerated. A moment that spoke volumes of the new Johnson. A senior driven to make his team successful. A moment that his teammates said wouldn't have occurred a year ago.

"No," teammate Curt Maggitt said when asked if the old Johnson would have been so outspoken. "But I think as the days count down, and he knows this is his last ride, he's doing anything he can to help us be successful."

"He's talking before the whole defense with tears in his eyes. He said, 'You don't understand. It's about winning." - Tommy Thigpen on senior LB A.J. Johnson

Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen credits Johnson's display of emotion last Thursday in front of his team to last season, when the light bulb came on for the tackling machine.

"It hit him that he can do anything he wants," Thigpen said. "Now he gets it. That's how it works. For guys it just comes on. It got so simple for him. Things they were attacking him with earlier in the (2013) year, all of that went away. People just kept saying he's this and he's that. He can't cover in space, yet end of the season no one was trying to attack him. He got it. His eyes now are spot on. He knows when to look at the quarterback. He knows how to fit the power. He knows the lingo. Very instinctive and athletic, now we are compounding it with his football knowledge. He has an ease and a ton of confidence on the field now. The offense will tell you when he's not on the field, we are different. It's a different kind of team when he's on the field.

"We talk about it. Players respect knowledge. That's what they want. A lot of guys know it, but they can't go out there and execute. If you have a guy that knows it and then goes out there and executes it, it brings a whole different level of respect. When he starts spitting out your assignments then you feel like, 'Well if he knows his assignments and he knows mine and he's got his game at 110-percent, it teaches you that you need to pick your game up and he holds you accountable for it.' He gets on guys. He was in the meeting Thursday and it was the best thing I saw. A.J. saw a guy not giving his all and here I got a linebacker crying saying, 'I want to win. I want to win, I'm not going to accept this.' He's talking before the whole defense with tears in his eyes. He said, 'You don't understand. It's about winning.' That kind of a leader and if he stays healthy he can do anything he wants to do."

The light bulb moment is not just coach speak. The stats support the notion. Johnson had 106 tackles in 2013. Only 8.5 of those tackles were for minus yards. Four of those 8.5 TFLs came the last three games.

"I thought he dominated," Thigpen said. "I remember Gus Malzahn sent me a text message and said 'He's the best one we have gone against. He goes 110 mph every single play.' A.J. just loves it. He's a really good football player and even a better kid. He and Butch are really close. It's been fun watching their relationship grow. Last year he didn't talk that much. Now, he's that guy. It's funny I see him and Butch talking all the time on the field, before and after practice. That tells you he has bought in and is going to do anything he can to help us be successful."

Johnson admits that a year ago he knew what to do, but he didn't know everything everyone else was supposed to do nor did he understand what offenses were trying to do to him. Today, his understanding is at a different level and it's been a direct correlation to his increased leadership.

"Last year, I knew my responsibilities and what I had to do. Now my second year in the system, I know when something breaks down, why it broke down and whose fault it is," Johnson said. "I'm able to not think about what I have to do, but I'm thinking about what the offense might do. The down and distance, what the personnel is and what they like to run. That has come from just a lot of teaching from Coach Thig and Coach (John) Jancek.

"I feel like at the end of last season that's when I started being able to pinpoint where the breakdown occurred. At this time, I'm not just thinking of our defense, but I'm really thinking about what the offense is trying to do to us.

"That's a big role in being a leader, being able to pinpoint who messed up or if I messed up and let them know they have to do this next time or get onto them for messing up. It's good that once a play is over with that I can go to a player and say 'Hey you have to get this done' or 'You can't let this happen.'"

Johnson has 324 career tackles. With 76 stops in 2014, Johnson will become just the third defender in school history to have 400 tackles in a career. With 90 tackles, Johnson will move into second place all time behind Andy Spiva who had 547 career stops. But the numbers aren't Johnson's focus. His focus is on winning and making sure those around him are performing at their best.

"There were spurts last year but he wasn't very vocal," head coach Butch Jones said of Johnson's leadership. "I think it's understanding that a lot of people use the phrase leading by example. When you hear a person leads by example what do you think of? On time to work. Does their job. Reliable. Accountable and consistent. That doesn't make you a leader. That's just doing your job. We really spent a lot of time with him. I saw a transformation that occurred this spring and it's really been elevated. It's giving him more opportunities to lead. He's been more vocal this training camp and that's a tribute to him."

Jancek said Johnson won't be confused for someone being wordy, but the Georgia native is the Vols' version of the ole EF Hutton slogan. When Johnson speaks, everyone listens.

"He doesn't say a lot, but when he does, it's to the point and people listen," Jancek said. "He's not a rah-rah guy, but when he sees something that needs to be addressed, he addresses it and it gets corrected."

Added Johnson, "They know if I see it then I'm going to say something about it. That's what leaders are supposed to do. You are supposed to say something and get on guys if they aren't going hard."

Maggitt admitted that no one is off limits to Johnson's watchful eye, noting that his teammate got on him early in camp. And it's those teammates who don't have any desire to let their leader down, not out of fear but out of respect for him, his approach to the game and the program.

"His passion for the game. No matter what we are doing, he's competitive," Maggitt said. "Everyone knows he is giving his all every day, every drill. This off-season he's held more guys accountable and has been more vocal as a leader, even though that's not his style. You have to respect A.J.'s grind."

Added Jalen Reeves-Maybin, "I try not to let A.J. down. I'm trying my hardest to not let A.J. Johnson down because he's not going to let anyone down. He goes hard every rep. I'm just trying to match his effort."

Freshman Dillon Bates has found a seat next to Johnson in every linebacker meeting, defensive meeting, the cafeteria, anywhere Johnson has been talking Bates has been listening and asking questions trying to understand the defense and life in the SEC. Bates has a true appreciation for Johnson's desire to teach and his ability to lead.

"He's a great leader," Bates said. "He's been working harder than anyone on the team and really leading us into battle. Inky Johnson came and he talked about if we all went into battle who would turn around and lead us. Everyone said A.J. would be the leader. He would take us into battle. That's how we look at going into games. A.J. is taking us into battle."

Battles that Johnson is more prepared for than ever before, and Saturdays that Johnson understands he's responsible for having his teammates ready for as well.

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