Born to be a 'backer

Some guys are born to play linebacker. One Tennessee junior believes he's one of those guys ... and nothing he did in Thursday's initial spring scrimmage suggested otherwise.

Austin Johnson was the day's defensive standout - leading in tackles (8) and tackles for loss (2 for -6 yards). The rugged 6-2, 231-pounder also registered a sack and an interception.

That's an awfully impressive day's work for a guy playing defense for the first time in two years. Johnson was the Vols' No. 2 fullback in 2008 and 2009.

"The Lord made me a linebacker, and that's what I'm coming back to," he said following the scrimmage. "I'm just following His plan. I really like the transition. I'm just knocking off some rust, and I'll be back where I need to be."

Johnson recorded a mind-boggling 580 career tackles as a linebacker at Hickory (N.C.) High School and signed with UT as a linebacker prospect in December of 2007. Oddly enough, he moved to fullback for depth purposes when David Holbert tore an ACL, then moved back to linebacker this spring - again for depth purposes - when a rash of injuries decimated that position.

Although he got seven "touches" on offense last fall - one carry for two yards and six receptions for 68 yards - Johnson doesn't miss fullback.

"I really don't," he said. "I love having the rock (ball) but I can get the rock on defense."

After just three weeks back on defense, he seems to be on the verge of forgetting he ever played offense.

"I feel a lot like a linebacker," he said, grinning broadly. "I'm loving it."

Even after two years practicing and playing exclusively on offense, he says the return to defense is progressing smoothly.

"It's going real good," he said. "I'm working hard. I'm in the film room, and (linebacker) coach (Lance) Thompson is hard on me. Herman (Lathers) and Nick (Reveiz) are really pushing me, helping me learn the system. I just feel like it's molding me into the player I want to be."

Playing linebacker at the high school level and playing it at the college is not the same, of course. Johnson knows that better than most.

"In high school I didn't really have much of a system. I was just out there trying to make tackles," he said. "In this defense I have a lot more responsibility, so that's what I'm focusing on right now."

If Johnson's head is spinning a bit, it's understandable. In his first 24 months on The Hill he already has had to adjust to two position switches and two head coaching changes.

"I've learned three different offenses since I've been here," he said. "So coming over and learning a college defense is probably the hardest part. I still need work in learning the defense and the small technique things but it'll come."

It may come quicker than expected. With so many linebackers sidelined by injuries, Johnson is getting a ton of practice repetitions each day.

"That's helping me a lot," he said. "I can spend all day in the film room and learning it on paper, but it's really about getting reps. I'm getting a lot of reps and a lot of coaching, and that's helping me a lot."

Although Tennessee's scheme is significantly more involved than the one he played in high school, Johnson says a few things haven't changed.

"Playing middle linebacker," he said, "my gaps are the same and my reads are the same."

And his passion for hitting is the same. That's the way it is when you're born to play linebacker.


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