Austin makes a move

One rugged young Tennessee fullback scored his first college touchdown last Saturday night and might get his first college start tonight against Memphis.

That would be Austin Johnson, a 6-2, 234-pound sophomore from Hickory, N.C. After backing up first-team fullback Kevin Cooper in Games 1 through 8, Johnson got a chance to compete for the starting job in practice this week. Which one starts tonight apparently will be a game-time decision.

Regardless, Johnson and Cooper are giving Tennessee exceptional play at the fullback position this year.

"It's a really healthy competition," Johnson said this week. "Me and Cooper are really good friends. I push him and he pushes me. If one of us is slacking or isn't doing good, that picks us up and keeps us working hard.

"I think me and Kevin will always have a great relationship and we'll always be pushing each other. That's awesome to have because it's only going to make you a better player each and every day."

Johnson has one carry for two yards and Cooper has no carries this fall but both fullbacks are key weapons in the Vol passing attack. Cooper has 11 catches for 88 yards, Johnson 4 for 62. In fact, Johnson's 15.5 yards-per-catch average tops the team.

He got more than half of his receiving yards on a 38-yard touchdown catch vs. South Carolina last weekend. Tennessee coaches saw something in Gamecock game films they thought they could exploit, so they put in a play that sent the fullback down the middle of the field. Getting the look he wanted, head coach Lane Kiffin called the play on UT's second scrimmage snap of the game.

"I knew the play was going to be called early in the game, and I was blessed to be able to go in and run the play," Johnson recalled. "Coach Kiffin had the confidence in me to run that play at that particular time. South Carolina was running a particular defense that (suggested) the play would work. We knew it was going to be a hit-or-miss play."

In this instance, it was a hit. Johnson barreled through the line, then looked over his shoulder just in time to reel in a perfect pass from Jonathan Crompton and ramble into the end zone for the game's opening score.

"Crompton gave me a good ball," Jojhnson recalled, "and I was off to the races."

That TD catch, along with some solid blocking by Johnson, led Kiffin to proclaim the fullback job open in practice this week. Johnson was understandably thrilled.

"It's awesome," he said. "But that's the cool thing about Coach Kiffin. There's always competition every day in practice. Everyone's fighting for that starting job, and the starting job is never set. It's always open. That's the cool thing about this staff."

Speaking of cool, Johnson is sporting a Mohawk haircut these days. He got it mere hours before scoring his first college TD, so he may keep it awhile. Walk-on linebackers Shane Reveiz and Jake Storey got Mohawks, too.

"We were sitting in the hotel and we were a little bored, so we decided to go with the Mohawks for Halloween night," Johnson said. "My mom's not too happy with it, so we'll see how long it lasts."


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