A.J. Johnson has quickly become one of the most important players on the Tennessee Volunteer defense. Though he's just a sophomore, there's a lot to know about him already, and I've got it right here.
With Curt Maggitt, Johnson got the Big Orange fanbase excited about the next three years at the linebacker position last season. Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon are probably the last two players that had this much talent, and neither of them did it as freshmen.
The sky's the limit for Johnson. While the offense will be the story for most of the year, it will be Johnson's ability to make key stops during the big moments that could make or break the season.
A.J. Johnson was a standout at Gainesville High School, earning Class AAA Defensive Player of the Year for the state of Georgia in 2010. He helped lead his team to three straight region titles and tallied a ridiculous 173 tackles, eight forced fumbles and six sacks during his senior year.
As you can imagine, Johnson was a highly recruited linebacker during that final year at Gainesville. According to Rivals, he was the 136th-best player in the 2011 recruiting class, 12th-best in Georgia and eighth-best at his position.
Johnson had the option to go anywhere he wanted to play football. With offers from Alabama, Florida, USC and many more, he was convinced to join the Volunteers by the Lane Kiffin-half of the 2011 recruiting class.
Johnson committed in September of 2010, remained steady throughout the fall and signed with a new head coach but the same Tennessee tradition on February of 2011.
The words used by the UT Athletic Department are "A.J. Johnson, along with Curt Maggitt, is believed to be the first true freshman to ever start at linebacker for Tennessee."
In other words, the records don't go back far enough into the 1800s for verification, but for all intents and purposes, Johnson and Maggitt broke the mold.
Johnson finished just one tackle behind the team leader, senior Austin Johnson, during his freshman season. His 80 tackles were the most of any SEC freshman in 2011 and are the second-most by a Volunteer freshman in history behind only Eric Berry.
Let's just say he was in elite company.
His consistent production, strong play and great game awareness led to him being named a Freshman All-American. Johnson came into his freshman year with high expectations and exceeded them all.
The big story surrounding A.J. Johnson is his physique. At 245 pounds, he is by far the heaviest linebacker at Tennessee. There were many times when I'd glance at the field and wonder why Maurice Couch (305 pounds) wasn't out there.
But Johnson carries that weight well. He's just a stocky guy! He uses great instincts to position himself in the middle of plays and works with the decent speed he has.
If he wants to take the next step, it would benefit him to adopt a speed training program, a la Donte Stallworth dragging tires on the beach before his senior year. With a 4.7 40-yard dash time, Johnson has room for improvement in this area.
This fall, A.J. Johnson will assume his middle linebacker position when Tennessee hits the field in the traditional 4-3 defense and one of the two inside linebacker positions when they go with the newly incorporated 3-4.
Johnson started 10 out of 12 games last year, but there's no doubt that he'll get the nod in all 12 (hopefully 13) games this season. As the premier tackler on the team, he has a chance at 100 tackles.
The Volunteer defensive line is weakest unit on the team, so Johnson has to be a formidable run-stopper if and when rushers break through the line. He will have many chances to turn potential 15-yard runs into a mediocre thee-yard gains.
Johnson has only improved since his stellar freshman campaign. Physically and mentally, he's a better player than the Freshman All-American from a year ago. He should be on everyone's All-SEC radar and is a dark-horse candidate for All-American.
Already it feels like A.J. Johnson has been at Tennessee for years, and that's a compliment. He acts more mature than the rising sophomore that he is.
Fans are talking about the draft prospects of juniors Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and Ja'Wuan James, but they ought to start including Johnson in that list once 2013 gets here.
Johnson has already broken records and established his role as a leader, and he has made it seem easy. A speed boost and more experience could draw best-case comparisons to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Not bad!
But first things first. A year ago, I made what you might call a "bold prediction" about the Tennessee Volunteers' 2012 season. I'll postpone my prediction one year, but if it is to occur, Johnson will have to be a huge factor in 2013 and beyond.