Apologies to author Thomas Wolfe, but you can go home again. You just can’t expect a warm welcome.
Johnson thought he’d found a home at middle linebacker with the Vols, only to be evicted and relocated to tight end about a week ago. Now he encounters a hostile greeting whenever he ventures into the middle of the field on a pass route. Once his friends, the linebackers now give him grief each time he advances within earshot.
“A lot, man! A lot!” Johnson told InsideTennessee, laughing out loud. “My new job is to put them in the ground … to block them. It’s all love, it’s all football at the end of the day, but they get kind of hostile now.”
Vol linebackers may become even more hostile as Jakob Johnson develops some tight-end skills. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder already has the physical tools to be a standout blocker. Once he gets comfortable with the mental aspects of the position he could be something special.
“It’s a lot of stuff happening at the same time, so you’ve got to pick it up fast,” he said. “You’re involved in both the run game and the pass game, so you’ve got to know the run concepts and still be pumped enough to go and hit somebody as hard as you can. Personally, I really like it.”
Johnson hopes he’s found a home at tight end because he’s spent the past three years as somewhat of a nomad – on the field and off. He left Stuttgart, Germany in 2012 to settle in Jacksonville, Florida. After starring as a senior linebacker for Ribault High School in 2013, he signed with Tennessee and moved to Knoxville. Following a stint at defensive end, he moved to middle linebacker, where he started two games last November. Just as he was getting comfortable at MIKE, however, Vol head coach Butch Jones suggested a move to tight end.
“When he explained it to me it made a lot of sense,” Johnson recalled. “I am kind of a big guy, I love lifting weights and working hard. That’s what you need at tight end: If you work hard you can good at it.”
Given his extensive background tackling people, Johnson quickly embraced the blocking responsibilities that go with playing tight end.
“The physicality part, I really like that,” he said. “Blocking, coming around and kicking out defensive ends … that’s my thing.”
Tennessee’s offensive coordinator has noticed.
“Sometimes it’s hard for a defensive player to come over and play offense, but he’s made a really good transition,” Mike DeBord said. “First of all, he’s tough. Second of all, he’s got really good feet, which help him block, help him run routes.”
Johnson played some short-yardage fullback in high school but never had to run routes or catch passes. He’ll need to develop and refine those skills before he’s ready to contribute in the Vols’ passing game. He displays the raw materials to get there quickly, however.
“He’s a lot farther ahead I thought he would be just a few days after coming over here,” DeBord said. “We like what we see.”
Johnson likes what he sees, too. He may have a hidden talent for catching the football.
“I surprised myself,” he said. “My hands are kind of decent. I’m working on the routes, breaking defenders off and getting open. I’m working after practice, and I’m sure that’s something I can learn by just working on it.”
Johnson’s work ethic and enthusiasm certainly impress his head coach.
“He has done a really good job, as far as not playing the position before,” Butch Jones said. “Jakob possesses very good balance, he has very good leverage, he’s very explosive, and he has the want-to. He wants to learn how to do it.
“When you make a positional change, he has no bad habits. So you get a chance to build him from ground zero. You get a chance to mold him and build him up.
“I can see him getting better every day.”