SAN ANTONIO - Tennessee's future at linebacker was nationally televised Wednesday night, as four-star A.J. Johnson plowed through the backfield and made a number of big hits in the Under Armour All-American Game in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The only problem: Johnson provides plenty of strength, but, because he's been committed since September, doesn't help puff up the Vols' currently low numbers at linebacker heading into National Signing Day.
Johnson (Gainesville, Ga.) and lesser-touted three-star Christian Harris (Woodstock, Ga.) are the only two linebackers committed to UT for the class of 2011, a year where plenty of questions swirling over the Vols will center on their ability to replace Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson.
Three of the 16 linebackers who will take the Alamodome field at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Saturday (TV: WBIR, 1 p.m.) are major targets on UT's radar, and it appears all three will at least consider the Vols before they respectively announce their final decisions.
The first could come as soon as halftime Saturday, as four-star Lateek Townsend (Bennettsville, S.C.) will announce his commitment at some point during the live broadcast.
Townsend (6-foot-2, 197 pounds) said he arrived at his decision some time this week, as he received feedback from a number of committed players who outlined why they liked their respective schools of choice and what turned them off from going elsewhere.
None of those teammates, though, have a clue what hat Townsend will do on Saturday. In between practice Thursday, Townsend, who is considered the eighth-ranked linebacker in the nation by Rivals.com, wouldn't even divulge what hats will be on the table.
"I took the schools and I said 'Let's take football away. Would I go to this school if it wasn't for football?' " Townsend said. "That helped me eliminate a lot of it because a lot of people tell you to go to school for national championships."
Townsend has yet to visit UT and he admitted contact has been minimal since initial talks with coach Derek Dooley and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, but he did not rule out the Vols. He said he has consulted with former Vol linebacker Robert Ayers, who is now with the NFL's Denver Broncos and played his high school ball at the same high school as Townsend, Marlboro County.
"He had to leave the state and most of our players that left the state are successful," Townsend said. "Some of the ones that stayed in the state weren't too successful. He just said you got to get away and experience things other than where you're at in South Carolina."
Lamar Dawson (Danville, Ky.) admitted Thursday that he had been feeling pressure from some of his hometown friends to stay in-state with either Kentucky or Louisville. His final three official visits, however, indicate that he's turning a deaf ear to it all.
Actually, he's developed his own technique to ignore all the chatter.
"I just nod my head," he said.
Dawson, who is considered the No. 8 inside linebacker in the nation and No. 1 overall prospect in Kentucky by 247sports.com, will visit Southern Cal on Jan. 14, Central Florida on Jan. 21 and UT on Jan. 28. He will announce his decision on National Signing Day on Feb. 2.
"They're all great schools," Dawson said. "I just have to find the place that's right for me."
Because of the glut of linebackers on both rosters, Dawson (6-foot-2, 230) has played exclusively on the outside this week despite his projection to play in the middle at college. He said he liked the versatility he has been able to display, something that might come in handy when he hopes to achieve his goal of playing regularly as a freshman.
"That's a big factor," Dawson said.
C.J. Johnson (Philadelphia, Miss.) stuck with his commitment to Mississippi State, which was made during his junior year, through a number of Bulldogs' coaching changes, but Wednesday's departure of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to Texas was the final straw. He re-opened his recruitment shortly after the news broke and will visit Ole Miss and LSU later in the month.
Johnson (6-foot-3, 227) said he loved what he heard from Wilcox when he recently stopped by for an in-home visit.
"He's a great guy," Johnson said. "I kind of got a chance to watch Tennessee on TV a little bit, liked the scheme. They blitz a lot. He's definitely a coach I wouldn't mind playing for."
Johnson said he hasn't had much contact with the Vols since Wilcox's visit, but would be open to hear from UT over the final month, especially now that he's a free agent for the second time.
"The younger guys, they kind of bring more intensity to the table," Johnson said. "That's something you look for as a freshman coming into a college, a coach that will get you pumped up every day for practice.
"There are days when you're down and out, and it's definitely fun."