The right stuff

One Tennessee football player already possessed the ideal physical attributes for the spring switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme this spring. Sign in or subscribe now to read about him.

When Sal Sunseri left Alabama for Tennessee, he said goodbye to a bunch of 260-pound linebackers and hello to a bunch of 220-pound linebackers ... with one notable exception.

Rising sophomore A.J. Johnson is cast from the Bama 'backer mold — big (6-3, 245), strong, aggressive and hard-nosed. He could be the cornerstone of first-year coordinator Sunseri's 2012 Vol defense.

"I'm really happy with A.J. Johnson," Sunseri said this week. "He's his own guy, so the similarities (to Tide linebackers) would be in his size: He's a bigger guy that plays inside. He's a guy that's doing a lot of great things."

That's no recent development, however. As a true freshman Johnson started 10 times at Will (weak side) linebacker in a 4-3 scheme for the 2011 Vols. He's still playing Will but in a 3-4 alignment this spring. He's also playing middle linebacker in the nickel package. Wherever he's lining up, he's having a blast in the new scheme.

"I believe it's way aggressive," Johnson said. "We're going to have people coming from everywhere. You're never going to know who's popping and who's dropping."

Basically, Johnson did no "popping" (blitzing) last fall but he projects to do quite a bit this fall.

"Eventually, I'm going to also see him rush the passer; I'm letting everybody know that," Sunseri said. "I'm going to see that. That guy has the ability to make plays, so I want to stick him on the edge and see how he can rush the passer."

Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri (pictured) plans to use Johnson in a variety of ways this fall.
(Danny Parker/
Vol defenders have embraced the new 3-4 alignment, none more so than Johnson. He believes it provides a level of flexibility and unpredictability that was lacking last fall.

"It's going to help me to make more plays," he said. "It gives us more room to blitz, drop back and make plays, instead of just playing one spot and dropping into one area."

What makes Sunseri's version of the 3-4 so difficult to attack is the havoc it creates. With defenders shifting and moving right up to the snap, the blockers are unsure who is coming and where they're coming from.

"I think that's a big key," Johnson said. "The offense don't really know where we're coming from, whether we're sliding or not. We can switch up the protection on 'em so fast — get in and out of change — just to confuse 'em."

The obvious problem: Sometimes Vol defenders are moving so much that they become as confounded as the blockers.

"In practice we get confused," Johnson conceded. "We have a lot of busts in practice but we go to the film room and correct them. Our offense is making us work even better because they're keeping us at a high tempo and a high pace, making us learn the plays faster and move faster on the field."

Tennessee defenders played fairly well in the first spring scrimmage, then played a little better in the second. They're hoping to make more progress in Saturday's Orange & White game.

"We played better than last week," Johnson said of the second scrimmage, "but we've still got places we can get better — going out and playing harder and knowing where we've got to fit on defense."

Sunseri installed most of the defensive playbook during the first week of spring ball. After cutting back a bit, he gave his troops a refresher course on some of the scheme this week.

"We knew he was going to throw it all on us at one time, then let us pick it up as we go," Johnson said. "We just went back and picked up some stuff we already installed. There's a lot of stuff we installed already, so we're just trying to refresh and go over it."

To see more of Johnson speaking at his last availability, click play on the video below:

Sunseri touches on Johnson and other aspects of coaching defense in this video:

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