Tennessee Stat Book
Derek Dooley was talking about Tyrann Mathieu, but his answer quickly drifted into a general discussion about the unteachable qualities players like the LSU cornerback possess.
"Some guys are ballers and some aren't," Dooley said. "Ballers, you find them at every position. They got that something that they know how to impact a game.
"Literally, you get them at running back, receiver, quarterback, D-line, corners. They're just ballers, man, and you love 'em."
On Tuesday, Dooley singled out a "baller" from his roster: freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson.
Dooley said he figured out Johnson's "baller" capabilities on the first day of practice. That's how quickly "ballers" like Johnson and fellow freshman Curt Maggitt separate from the pack.
"He just made a couple of moves," Dooley said. "And then I said, 'he's ready.' "
Johnson has certainly played like it.
Because of UT using its nickel package during the early portions of some of its games, Johnson has only officially started three of the Vols' first five games, but he's clearly one of the team's top three linebackers. Playing on the opposite side of Mag
gitt and next to senior Austin Johnson, he's tied for third on the team with 21 tackles and tied for fifth with two tackles for loss.
Because of the physical challenge that lies ahead Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.) against No. 1 LSU at Neyland Stadium, Dooley singled out how important of a role Johnson and Maggitt will play in limiting the Tigers' "big old bulldozer" of an offense.
"We're going to need them this week," Dooley said. "This is A.J.'s kind of (game). This is a stature game right here. It's 60 plays of getting your manhood challenged."
It's seemingly all come so easy for Johnson, who was a consensus four-star recruit out of Gainesville, Ga., but the transition from high school to college came with a bit of a twist.
Johnson, at 245 pounds, looks the part of a big SEC middle linebacker, but that wasn't where he was needed for this particular season. After a spring that ended with Austin Johnson moving from the outside to the middle, and a mid-summer ankle injury suffered by leading returning tackler Herman Lathers, the Vols were in need of outside linebackers.
Johnson had played a little bit of both in high school — "ballers" in high school tend to play wherever they're needed on a given play — so it wasn't a completely new world to him.
"I knew I had a good chance of coming in and playing, so I just came and worked and tried to get a spot," Johnson said Tuesday in his first media appearance since joining the Vols. "They told me I've got to come and play. There wasn't a lot of depth at linebacker, I just had to come in and work hard and practice hard."
The learning curve, in general, from high school to college still was the biggest hurdle. Johnson said Tuesday that he can't just get by on his "baller" abilities and instincts anymore.
When other ballers are on the field, attributes like proper technique and smart angles of pursuit are essential to survive.
"The tough transition is just from going to high school to college. I don't think it has to do with the position," Dooley said. "Even if he played in the middle, it'd be totally different than what he was doing in high school.
"But we got him kind of playing both. Sam and Mike, he's going to have to learn both. All our linebackers have to learn two."
The immediate future has Johnson slated for more and more playing time at his current position. In recent games, he's remained on the field when the Vols switch out of their base defense and into their nickel package, giving him more chances to add to his tackle total and more opportunities to display what he's learned about pass coverage.
Of course, he'll always prefer a straight-ahead attack like the one LSU will present Saturday.
"I'm just looking to get to the ball and get the man down," Johnson said. "Try to be the first one to the ball (with) a violent tackle."
The future beyond 2011 could see Johnson return to the middle, but the change, again, wouldn't be dramatic.
"It all depends on how he grows as a player and what our needs are," Dooley said. "He obviously has the size that is a little more Mike prototype, but the position he's playing is still in-the-box linebacker.
"His size presents such that he needs to be playing from tackle to tackle."