Coach Spotlight: A.J. Johnson
"I probably should have started him sooner," said Gainesville head coach Bruce Miller. "He was ready, but I don't play a lot of 9th graders. He played great right away. The second game he started that first year he made 16 tackles. He'll leave as one of the best athletes we've had play here."
Johnson, 6-3, 230, was part of last year's Red Elephant team that made a run to the state finals. He was part of a defensive unit which was recognized as the 2009 linebacking corp of the year. Gainesville lost many seniors from that team including Tai-ler Jones (Notre Dame), Blake Sims (Alabama), and Daunte Carr (Arkansas). Miller looked to Johnson to take on an even bigger team role.
"Consistency is one of A.J.'s best attributes," said Miller. "He was our second leading tackler this year and was our leading tackler this year. We used him at the 'Wildcat' on offense, and he rushed for over 300 yards. In the game against North Hall, our biggest rival, we gave it to him 15 straight times to run the clock out up by a touchdown, and they couldn't stop him. He really had an exceptional year."
In Johnson's first game in the offense he rushed for 76 yards on nine carries with a touchdown in a win against White County. He also had 15 tackles on defense with a fumble recovery for a score. The Red Elephants finished 10-2 on the year making it to the 2nd round of the playoffs where they fell to Cedar Grove.
"A.J. was a tremendous leader for us," Miller said. "He's more of a leader by example, but it's like E.F. Hutton, when he talks, people listen."
Johnson originally gave an early commitment to Tennessee, but then Lane Kiffin took the Southern Cal job. He backed off and waited to see what was going to happen with the new staff. After giving the University of Florida a hard look, Johnson recommitted to the Tennessee program in September.
"Coach Dooley really hit it off with A.J.," Miller said. "After he dropped his commitment and let it sit there, I think it really helped that Coach (Chuck) Smith stayed with him."
Despite the foray into offense this past season, Lance Thompson and Tennessee is chomping at the bit to add Johnson to their group of linebackers.
"He played inside for us, but he has the ability to play inside or out," Miller said. "A.J. has such a knack for finding the football. He's always around the ball. He doesn't stay blocked using his hands well to shake loose or his feet to side step his opponent.
"At middle linebacker he played with a good awareness in recognizing where to position himself to make a play. He's also so coachable. I'd be surprised if he doesn't see playing time as a freshman."
An excellent student, Johnson also runs track (hurdles) and is on the basketball team. Even though joining a powerhouse SEC football program is just months away, Johnson takes his commitment to his team seriously.
"Everybody loves A.J. because it's never all about A.J. with him," said Miller. "He was chosen for a second all-star game, one I coached in, but didn't think it would be fair to his basketball team if he missed the time to play in it. When he went for the Under Armour game in Florida, he flew back Thursday and was at basketball practice Thursday night."
Miller will surely miss Johnson's presence at Gainesville as he matriculates this summer to Tennessee. Although he's known for a long time, the potential was there for Johnson to develop into the player he became.
"During freshman drills, he just started taking over one day," Miller said, "and one of my assistant coaches turned to me and said ‘if he keeps his grades up, he's going to be our next big time athlete' and I agreed. On the field he's one of the fiercest competitors around, but he's such a great kid off the field. Tennessee's getting a good one."
Johnson is set to gradate from Gainesville High School on May 23rd. He will make a formal announcement at his high school on signing day with teammate Thomas Niles who is committed to Central Florida. Johnson wore No. 45 for the Red Elephants.
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