Split decision

His name is Austin but sometimes he's Will. Other times he's Mike.

Appearances to the contrary, Tennessee linebacker Austin Johnson isn't afflicted with multiple-personality disorder. Will and Mike aren't identities he assumes; they're positions he plays.

Will is weakside linebacker. Mike is middle linebacker. Johnson saw action at both spots in 2010 and will do so again in 2011. He's the first-team Will linebacker this spring but he takes over at Mike when the Vols switch to their nickel package that features one extra defensive back and one less linebacker.

"When we're in base personnel I'm playing Will," Johnson explained following Saturday's scrimmage. "We also have a nickel package where I play Mike. I know pretty much all of it, so I'm willing to play wherever they need me."

Although he played fullback his first two seasons at Tennessee, the 6-2, 230-pound senior learned enough last fall in his first season at linebacker to feel comfortable at both Will and Mike. Now that three of last year's top six 'backers have departed - Nick Reveiz, LaMarcus Thompson, Savion Frazier - Johnson's versatility is vital to the Vols' depth-shy linebacker corps. That's why he probably won't be locked in at one position during the season ahead.

"If they need me to be moving around, I'm up for it," he said. "Last year I played Mike and Will. If I need to do that again this year I will. Right now I'm first-team at Will with (John) Propst first-team at Mike. I move to Mike in the nickel package, which has just two linebackers."

Whereas some guys have trouble mastering one position, Johnson appears to have mastered two.

"It's not a problem at all," he said. "I'm expected to know it all, so that's what I need to do."

When asked if he prefers Will or Mike, Johnson deftly ducked the question.

"I just love linebacker altogether," he said. "You get to go out there and hit somebody, play the position I felt I should be playing all along."

Although the responsibilities are different, Will and Mike are alike in some ways.

"They're similar positions," Johnson explained. "I guess at Mike you're a little more into the run game. At Will you've got to have some speed because you have a lot harder passing drops. You're on some of the faster guys, whereas at Mike you can kind of read where the quarterback's eyes are going and react that way."

Although he didn't start a game last fall, Johnson ranked 11th on Tennessee's 2010 tackle chart with 44 stops. Only six Vols registered more tackles for loss than his total of 3.5. He also intercepted a pass, broke up a pass, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. In addition, he tied for second on the team with 9 special-teams' tackles.

After a full year spent making tackles instead of making blocks, the former fullback believes he'll be a much better linebacker in 2011 than he was in 2010. The benefits of last fall's experience are obvious this spring.

"That helped a ton," he said. "The biggest thing is that I'm understanding what the offense is going to do before they do it. I'm getting a feel for this offense. I'm starting to pick up on reads and tendencies of our offense, so I can be faster and make plays.

"Having a year at this position has really helped me learn the scheme, and I don't have to learn another position this year, so that's good."

Even with a new position coach (Peter Sirmon) and a bunch of new faces at linebacker, Johnson believes the 'backer corps is going to be exceptional come fall.

"They're looking great," he said. "Coach Sirmon has us really working hard together. We know each other well. As long as we keep listening to Coach Sirmon and keep in the film room, we should do really well together."

The first-team linebackers apparently did a bang-up job in Saturday's scrimmage. With Johnson contributing 4 stops, they limited No 1 tailback Tauren Poole to 21 yards on nine carries and helped limit No. 1 quarterback Tyler Bray to 11 completions in 27 attempts. Still, Johnson feels there is considerable room for improvement.

"The defense played really well in the first half," he said. "But the story of our life last year was not putting two halves together on defense, and that kind of seemed to play a role in this scrimmage. We just need to focus on having the same energy in the second half that we have in the first."

That's sound advice, whether it's coming from Will, Mike or Austin.

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