Waiting his turn

One of Tennessee's better linebackers may have difficulty getting on the field this fall. That's because he's stuck behind Tennessee's best linebacker.

Converted fullback Austin Johnson excelled during spring practice and preseason camp, establishing himself as the No. 2 middle linebacker. His playing time projects to be limited, however, since the No. 1 middle linebacker is senior Nick Reveiz. In addition to being the team's best 'backer, Reveiz is the team's emotional leader. And, after missing nine games last fall with a torn ACL, Reveiz will be reluctant to come off the field this fall, further limiting Johnson's opportunities.

If Johnson is worried about his role, however, he hides it well. The 6-2, 231-pound junior is convinced he'll see significant playing time as the season progresses.

"I'm looking to get as much as I can get," Johnson said this week. "Nick is definitely the leader of our defense and definitely someone I'm glad I'm being mentored by. When it comes to game-time, we'll just play it by ear to see how it goes."

Johnson's playing time might be considerable if Reveiz weren't so indispensable. Physically, he's a workout warrior capable of playing every snap without taking a breather. Mentally, he's a student of the game who calls the defensive signals and makes sure everyone else is lined up correctly. Naturally, linebacker coach Lance Thompson will think twice before resting a guy that valuable.

"Coach Thompson likes to play his 1s a lot," Johnson conceded. "Then, when they get tired, he'll take 'em out and put the 2s in there. Hopefully, I'll get a good amount of reps in the games."

Since Reveiz projects to play 80-90 percent of the snaps at middle linebacker, Johnson's best bet to see the field might be to help out at weakside or strongside linebacker. That isn't in the works at present, however, because Johnson hasn't practiced at those positions.

"I have not," he said. "Most of the guys have worked two positions. Since I just got here, I've only been working one."

Because coordinator Justin Wilcox's defense features incredible variety, however, Johnson may play in some of its special packages.

"I'm trying to get on as many packages as I can get on," he said. "We'll just see how it works out."

While Johnson's playing time may be limited, his potential is not. He has made tremendous strides since moving from offense to defense last spring.

"I'm seeing me progress," he said. "I've become a lot more vocal out there. I've definitely progressed on my defensive schemes and things like that. I'm just going to keep working and keep getting better."

Playing middle linebacker in Tennessee's scheme is taxing mentally, as well as physically. Johnson believes he is thinking faster and more clearly these days.

"I'm really comfortable out there," he said. "Once I got all of the formations down and learned all of the concepts, it's just small things. I'll miss a check once in a while, and Coach Thompson will be on me. But, for the most part, I'm getting all of my checks down."

Johnson was a standout linebacker during his days at Hickory (N.C.) High School, recording a mind-boggling 580 career tackles. Clearly, he knows how to play the position. He just needs to get back into the swing of it.

"I think the next step's just being able to make the checks and keeping my composure out there," he said. "I've been on the field plenty of times when it's been loud but never when I've been on defense, making calls and stuff. Just a little experience is probably what I need."

Stuck behind Nick Reveiz, "a little experience" may be all Austin Johnson gets for a while.

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