How does a Tennessee team with all of five senior starters replace its most experienced and most feared defender?
One lists at 6 feet 2, 245 pounds, has 425 tackles in 46 games and is a Butkus Award semifinalist.
One is 6-4, 240 and has almost as many tackles (six) as games played (nine).
One has family in Stuttgart, Germany, and speaks three languages.
The other came from Gainesville, Georgia, and was named a starting linebacker in the Southeastern Conference before his first week of training camp concluded.
Both have tattoos, long hair, separated by a single digit with their uniform numbers and enjoy the physicality of football — American football that is.
The emotion and leadership provided by A.J. Johnson is nearly unmatched by any two players on the Tennessee roster. It’s on Jakob Johnson to fill the void of the four-year starter, who was suspended Monday afternoon on suspicion of rape.
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Butch Jones says his Volunteers “will rely heavily on Jakob Johnson and Cortez McDowell and Kenny Bynum” with SEC Eastern Division leader Missouri coming to Rocky Top on Saturday.
Jakob Johnson didn’t play football in America until his final year of high school and enrolled in classes at Tennessee in January. Between his athleticism and thirst to learn, the Tennessee staff saw the former Scout three-star prospect having tremendous upside.
"Work in progress,” Jones said Tuesday of the freshman. “Put in the extra time of film study. We knew it would be a developmental process, but what we saw on video was basically what we see every day — very, very athletic, very tough, very physical, working on his instincts, working on just the overall knowledge of the game and all the checks and the multitude of checks. In this conference there is so many differences in offenses that you have to prepare for week-in and week-out. The different dynamics, the different skillsets of players that you have to prepare for. He has done a very good job of that."
In an effort to fill a void back in August, defensive coordinator John Jancek moved Johnson from linebacker up to the defensive front. That experiment didn’t last long.
“He’s gotten a lot better (at linebacker),” Jancek said. “Here’s the thing that I think is interesting: We moved him because a short period of time we were short at defensive end. So, we moved him to defensive end and then we made some moves at linebacker and we needed some depth at linebacker. Curt (Maggitt) came on and obviously is doing a lot of great things for us. Derek Barnett…we’re like, ‘Shoot, this guy can help us and we don’t have enough depth at linebacker.’ So, we pulled him back after camp and were able to really learn a lot in a short period of time. I’m real proud of what he’s been able to accomplish so far.”
Jones went on to say that he sees skills in the Jean Ribault (Fla.) High School graduate that will allow him to stay on the field in obvious passing downs, which means the head man thinks Jakob Johnson can thump running backs as well as drop into coverage.
“Yeah,” Jancek said, “we’re not necessarily going to man him up on the wideouts or anything like that. He’s done a great job. He’s been in position.”
Aside from some late-game work in games that were out of reach, Jakob Johnson’s only work on the collegiate level has come on special teams. But, can teams work give coaches an idea of what a player brings to the table?
“That’s a great question, that’s a great question because all of our special teams are defensive players,” Jancek said. “So, you get a chance to watch the film, watch them run down, avoid tackles, get off block, tackle. That’s huge, that’s huge, that’s a huge indication as to what kind of player he is and what he can potentially be.”
On Saturday, the task gets real. Jakob Johnson will have to meet Russell Hansbrough in the hole and bring the junior running back to the ground. That’s an entirely different role from blocking down on a long-snapper on punt block.