The Beast is finding the end zone

Read this Tennessee football update from editor-in-chief Randy Moore. Be sure to come to IT for all the latest in Volunteers athletics.

Two things generally happen when 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker A.J. Johnson lines up as a shotgun quarterback in Tennessee's so-called "Beast" package:

1. Opposing defenders mass to try and stop him.

2. Johnson hands the ball to the official after scoring.

Johnson has run The Beast five times this fall, producing three touchdowns and a first down. Clearly, his knack for picking up tough yards in short-yardage and goal-line situations is a godsend.

"We like the Beast," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "A.J. is good at it and he loves to do it, and it energizes our offense, so we're excited about that. I think that will remain a part of us."

Although he has pro potential as a linebacker, Johnson also can help as a running quarterback. He routinely displayed as much during his days at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, where he says he carried the ball approximately 50 times as a senior.

"I ran it a lot," he recalled. "The most carries I had in one game was like 17."

Johnson was so proud of his rushing prowess that he mentioned it to Tennessee's head coach during the recruiting process.

"When I was being recruited I said something to (Derek) Dooley about it, and he said he'd give me a shot as long as I learned the defense and all," Johnson said. "He was true to his word and gave me a shot."

That's understandable, given Tennessee's long-standing futility in short-yardage situations. In the 2012 opener versus North Carolina State the Vols failed to convert on third-and-one, third-and-three, fourth-and-one and third-and-one. Game 2 versus Georgia State saw them stopped cold on second-and-two, third-and-one and third-and-three.

When Tennessee faced a crucial third-and-two in the third quarter of Game 3 against Florida, Chaney called on The Beast. Johnson promptly plowed through the Gators for four yards and a first down. Five plays later, after a second-and-goal sneak by Tyler Bray failed to advance the ball, Johnson capped the drive by scoring from a yard out as the Vols moved ahead 20-13. Johnson scored his second touchdown of 2012 in the first quarter of Game 4 versus Akron, bulling into the end zone from two yards out. At that point his first three collegiate carries had produced seven yards, one first down and two touchdowns.

Just as The Beast was beginning to appear unstoppable, however, the unexpected happened. Johnson went the wrong way on a second-quarter fourth-and-one at Georgia State's 29-yard line and was stuffed for no gain. The setback was temporary, however. Johnson got back on track in Game 5 against Georgia, scoring standing up on a fourth-and-goal play at the 2-yard line.

"He scored, so I'm happy," Chaney said. "The Beast was good this week. A week earlier (versus Akron) The Beast was good half the time." Although The Beast appears to be basic playground football, the coordinator says Johnson is following orders, not ad-libbing.

"We design a hole, and most times he hits it," Chaney explained, "so we're excited with that."

Johnson is excited, too. He loves playing the title role in The Beast.

"It's fun, and it helps the team get motivated when they have somebody on the defensive side go in and score a touchdown," he said. "It hypes us up as a team."

Johnson says he never threw a pass in high school but did hand off several times as a shotgun quarterback. He has yet to hand off at Tennessee but, even without that threat, The Beast has been a rousing success. Johnson thinks he knows why.

"It's pretty much been good blocking for the most part," he said. "I ain't really had to do too much ... just run behind my blockers and fall in."

Johnson's success guarantees that future opponents will be scheming to stop The Beast. The element of surprise is gone.

"I know the first game it seemed like a lot of guys was surprised," Johnson said. "Now I think people are starting to realize it's a package we're going to use on the goal line, so I know teams are going to start trying to scheme against it."

Because he has no training as a running back, Johnson tends to run a little high, relying on brute strength to offset poor technique. That hasn't been a problem to date.

"He's a great guy and he's doing a great job with The Beast package," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "He's just got to get his pads down sometimes. I always tell him that but he thinks he's a machine and nobody's going to tackle him, so I'll just let him keep thinking that."

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