Johnson on the verge of being 'special'

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Sometimes being simplistic can be the finest form of description.

When analysts and coaches started answering questions about A.J. Johnson, they often referred to him as "a guy" or "a baller." In other words, it doesn't take a thesaurus to let those interested know that an athlete is a notch above the majority.

"He has a lot of confidence in his abilities," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "I don't think the light ever came on schematically (last year), but he's a football player. Good football players find their way to the ball when they're on defense and that's what he does. He has a long way to go in being a good football player, who has been blessed with a lot of ability and then translating that to playing the best he can play.

"But he could be a special player. He could. It's a lot of mental work. You can't just show up and play ball. He can show up, play ball and be good. But, he has a chance to be really good. That's going to require a lot of mental work."

After arriving as a four-star prospect, Scout's No. 16 middle linebacker in the country and an Under Armour All-American, Johnson did nothing to stem expectations. Together with Curt Maggitt, the tandem secure starting linebacker jobs only days after arriving on The Hill last summer.

In 12 games played, the Gainesville (Ga.) High School product totaled 80 tackles (37 solo), seven tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. His stops total ranks second best behind Eric Berry as the highest total in school history for a freshman. Johnson was recognized by nearly half a dozen sources as a freshman All-American.

While Tennessee and defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri are far from solidifying their depth chart and the setup, it appears as though Maggitt will relay the calls from the coaches to the players in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. That should free up Johnson from a mental perspective to play with more instinct.

Listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, the 'backer had more than enough stature to compete in the Southeastern Conference as soon as he arrived onto campus. As his first year went along, Johnson admitted that getting faster before his sophomore season was a priority.

Since then, he's trimmed off what he estimated to be 4-5 pounds. Kickoff against North Carolina State in Atlanta, Ga., is 157 days away. So, Johnson has plenty of time to continue carving up his physique.

To get a look at what Johnson said to the media following Tuesday morning's practice in Knoxville, click on the video below:

Danny Parker is currently the Associate Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the InsideTennessee team July 2011.

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