A fullback find

Tennessee freshman Austin Johnson spent Spring Scrimmage No. 2 pretty much the same way he spent Scrimmage No. 1 – lining up in the middle of the field, then belting people.

There was a significant change, however. He was wearing a white jersey and playing middle linebacker last Saturday. He was wearing an orange jersey and playing fullback today. The 6-3, 240-pounder starred at both positions back at Hickory (N.C.) High School, and says the two are surprisingly similar.

"It's not really that much different," he said. "You just have to stay low and be physical."

There is one difference, however, that looms large. At fullback, his goal is to lock onto his man and stay with him as long as possible. At linebacker his goal was to shed his man quickly and avoid getting locked up.

As Johnson put it: "The whole mentality of the game is different (on offense) because I'm going to block someone; I'm not trying to AVOID the block."

Johnson did a fantastic job fighting off blocks in high school, recording a mind-boggling 580 career tackles. He somehow found the energy to play nearly every down at fullback, as well, compiling 692 rushing yards (on 108 carries) and 470 receiving yards (on 35 catches).

"I was a full-time fullback ... and a full-time linebacker," he recalled.

And a big-time prospect with amazing versatility. Scout gave him a 3-star rating as a linebacker; Rivals gave him 3 stars as a fullback.

When senior David Holbert suffered a major knee injury in last Saturday's scrimmage, Tennessee was left with just one scholarship fullback – sophomore Kevin Cooper. With good depth at linebacker, head coach Phillip Fulmer decided to move Johnson to bolster the fullback ranks.

"He's a tough guy," Fulmer said. "He's athletic. He can catch the ball. He's not afraid. He's got to get a lot stronger. He'll have to work on that during the summer but I think he'll help us this year. He'll help us on offense and he'll help us on special teams."

Johnson didn't carry the ball in today's scrimmage but he showed good hands in catching a couple of safety-valve passes, turning one into a five-yard gain.

For a guy who was a middle linebacker this time last week, Austin Johnson has made huge strides – mentally and physically – in just six days as a college fullback.

"I like it," he said. "It's my first few days, so I'm trying to learn the offense the best I can, but it's coming along. Today was really good for me because I feel I'm understanding more."

That doesn't surprise Fulmer one bit.

"He's intelligent," the Vols' head man said. "For just a few days over there, he's picked it up really fast."

Given how little practice time Johnson has had at fullback, you'd figure he would have a very limited grasp of the offensive scheme. Not so.

"I'm fully caught up with the package," he said. "I caught up all this week. Today was a lot of thinking for me, though. I was thinking about who to go to (block). But if I didn't know who to go to, I would just play ball and find somebody."

Sounds like he's still got some linebacker in him, doesn't it?


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