Team 118 looking impressive at linebacker

InsideTennessee brings you the best Tennessee Vols football coverage. Scroll down to read about linebacker A.J. Johnson's decision to return for his senior season.

John Jancek stated the obvious back in November.

"It will have a big impact on our program either way," Tennessee's defensive coordinator said of linebacker A.J. Johnson's looming decision to turn pro early, or stay for one final season.

Jancek's second defense at Tennessee got considerably better when the decision finally came Tuesday.

Johnson will return for his senior season and not enter the NFL draft, Butch Jones announced on Twitter.

Johnson has been the Vols' best defender for the past two seasons, compiling a lengthy list of SEC honors to go along with 324 career tackles.

The three-year starter led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons and topped the SEC in tackles in 2012.

"A.J. is just the leader of this team, that's all there is to it," linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen told InsideTennessee. "He's a coach in the meeting room and the best player on the field. We go as far as A.J. Johnson takes us. It's as simple as that."

It's as simple as this: The return of Johnson gives Team 118 a huge boost.

Johnson not only solidifies an otherwise inexperienced defense, which loses all of its starting defensive line, but it gives Tennessee an impressive linebackers corps in 2014.

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Johnson will likely start in the middle with Curt Maggitt, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL, starting at one of the outside spots.

Time after time last season, Jones said his team was searching for playmakers. That hunt wasn't limited to the offensive side of the ball.

The paring of Johnson and Maggitt brings a much needed splash to a young defense – one that extends beyond the playing field.

"Their leadership is really huge," Jancek said during the season of Johnson and Maggitt. "When you talk about them having the pulse of the team, those guys, when they say something, people are going to listen."

The reunited duo indeed brings leadership, but also a contrasting playing style that complements each other very well.

Johnson is an elite run stopper who operates best between the tackles, moving north and south. Maggitt moves well laterally and is athletic enough to operate in space against tosses and sweeps.

Now only one linebacker position remains open heading into the second year of the Butch Jones Era.

The Vols bring in several talented youngsters in the 2014 class that figure to be in the mix for early playing time. In all, Tennessee welcomes six linebackers, including Dillon Bates, Christopher Weatherd, Kevin Mouhon and others.

While the Vols also announced Tuesday that reserve linebacker Christian Harris plans to transfer, Tennessee's current roster still holsters a few options at linebacker.

Rising sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin looks to be the most promising. He provided a season-long spark on special teams, logging a team-high 11 special teams tackles that included a streak of six games in a row with a tackle.

The Clarksville, Tenn., native saw very limited action on the defensive side of the ball, but he consistently received praise from Thigpen all season.

"Jalen is one heck of a football player. He's getting better everyday," Thigpen told IT in early November. "He's one of the most cerebral kids on this team and he wants to get better each and every day."


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