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August 16, 2013

Vols' middle man impresses all around

It was emphasized during spring practice and made clear again during fall camp.

Butch Jones expects hard work and he expects certain players to lead this team.

On the defensive side, middle linebacker A.J. Johnson has been doing both and the top Vol has certainly liked what he's seen to this point.

"I saw some growth," Jones said following Saturday's scrimmage. "I saw some excitement. I saw him trying to bring some other players along with him. And like I said, as a middle linebacker, from a leadership standpoint, is the equivalent of the quarterback on offense.

"You see Al Wilson, you see him and how he spoke to AJ. And we challenged A.J., that's one of the skill-sets he has to improve on and I see him making strides, making progress in that area."

Wilson and Johnson recently had the chance to chat while the Vol legend was in town for practice. It's a chance to soak up valuable knowledge.

"It's an honor for him to be around," Johnson said. "He's one of the best. You know when people say Ray Lewis, you could say Al Wilson. He's just as good. It's a blessing to have him around and see how greatness is."

The Tennessee staff really pushed Johnson during spring practice. They were certainly hard on him at times in an effort to make him realize his importance to this team and defense. It appears to have worked.

"Just learning the defense," Johnson said. "Learning the checks and calls. Just having a quicker step and a quicker tempo and have that ability to check us out of a defense depending on what the offense is giving us."

Johnson was among the most productive defensive players in the SEC last season. Some of that due to a poor defense, but mostly thanks for hard work and determination. The Gainesville, Ga., native has seen a lot of improvement in his game during his three seasons.

"I've always said football is football," Johnson said. "The biggest area where I've improved is my time management. I'm going to always go out and bust my butt and fight every play."

One area where Johnson has gotten significantly better is his ability to lead vocally. Offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, one of the leaders on that side of the ball, can't say enough good things about Tennessee's talented 'backer.

"You know A.J. used to be quiet by nature, but he's the leader of our defense," Richardson said. "He has to be that guy that picks up everybody. I saw some change last season, but I really saw it this offseason. We have something called the player's staff. We pick like twelve guys to lead the team and he had the most votes. His work shows."

With the responsibility of knowing the defensive calls, Johnson has impressed teammates with his ability to not only produce during the fall, but each day that team activity takes place.

"I can't explain it," linebacker Brent Brewer said. "He's an unbelievable athlete and he knows every play on the defense. He knows what everybody else has to do. He comes out every day and puts in the work and that's why he's one of the best in the SEC."

His knowledge of the game has naturally bloomed, but anyone that sees Johnson can tell he's has changed his body during the offseason.

"My body has transformed a lot," Johnson said. "I've slimmed up a lot. I lost like five pounds and added a lot more muscle. I was around 240 with 3% body fat. I'm a lot faster than I was. When you have a faster step and you know the game better, you are going to play faster."

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