Tennessee Football: What AJ Johnson's Return Means for Vols Defense

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 26:  A.J. Johnson #45 of the Tennessee Volunteers against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 26, 2013 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Tennessee Volunteers received some monstrous news Tuesday when All-SEC linebacker AJ "The Beast" Johnson announced on Twitter that he was returning for his senior season.

The 6'2", 245-pound middle linebacker's decision to stick around gives UT head coach Butch Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek a centerpiece around which to rebuild the Vols defense.

Returning a three-year starter is like adding an extra on-field coach and can do nothing but ease the learning curve for some of the newcomers—especially when it's one who can back it up by being a tackling machine.

The news was met by immediate excitement from Jones, who knows the importance of having an upperclassman on the roster to help lead a young but considerably more talented unit than what UT placed on the field in 2013.

Getting another year out of Johnson was possibly Jones' biggest recruiting coup in a year full of them.

Johnson's return gives Jones and Jancek an all-conference stalwart to pencil into the lineup every week, allowing the Vols to bring along a young, talented recruiting class full of linebackers slowly.

Johnson electing to stick around for his senior season will coincide with the return of his classmate and best friend, Curt Maggitt, to the Tennessee linebacking corps. Maggitt was the Vols' most disruptive defender prior to tearing knee ligaments against Missouri in November of 2012.

He missed all of 2013 while recovering and has two years of eligibility. The good news for Vols fans is, if he returns to form, UT will be able to put a healthy, dynamic duo on the field for the first time since they each received freshman All-America honors in 2011.

The Vols have several athletic options to fill the other outside linebacker spot. Rising sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin was a special teams dynamo as a freshman and has shown glimpses of serious potential on the second level.

A duo of highly recruited outside linebackers—freshman Dillon Bates and junior college transfer Chris Weatherd—will compete with Reeves-Maybin for playing time at the other outside linebacker spot.

UT has some other incoming freshmen OLBs as well.

Those bountiful options should also enable Jancek to replace Johnson in passing situations, if that need arises. Though he improved in that facet of his game as the year progressed, the only knock on Johnson in the past has been his struggles in space and with covering receivers.

Strengthening that area of his game could really boost Johnson's NFL draft stock. Wes Rucker of 247Sports.com detailed where Johnson currently stands:

Most analysts seemed to suggest he’d be drafted in the fourth, fifth or six round of the upcoming NFL Draft, so he chose to return to school in hopes of bumping that grade after a second season with Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek.

The Vols' defensive stalwart was not included in Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's latest mock draft.

Johnson improved as he became more acclimated to his third defensive scheme in three years.

AJ Johnson's return, coupled with a healthy Curt Maggitt, could bolster a Tennessee defense that has been dreadful over the past two seasons.
AJ Johnson's return, coupled with a healthy Curt Maggitt, could bolster a Tennessee defense that has been dreadful over the past two seasons.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

That bodes well for UT moving forward, but the biggest news out of all this is returning Johnson's production and emotional leadership. The Gainesville, Ga., native has amassed 324 tackles over the past three seasons, leading UT in that category every season.

With more speed and talent around him, Johnson will have more opportunities to shine and will not be asked to do as many things that take him out of his comfort zone.

Instead, he can focus on being a bruising, run-stuffing linebacker in the mold of New England Patriot Brandon Spikes.

Without Johnson's return, the Vols were going to be forced to play a newcomer in the middle of their defense or move somebody from their normal position. With him in the fold, they boast a leader who can impose his will on offenses and instruct by example along the way.