Derek Dooley: A.J. Johnson is a 'baller'

LB's special skill was clear from the start

Tennessee defensive lineman Curt Maggitt (56) and linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) stop Buffalo running back Branden Oliver (32) during first half action against the Buffalo Bulls in Neyland Stadium Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.

Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2011

Tennessee defensive lineman Curt Maggitt (56) and linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) stop Buffalo running back Branden Oliver (32) during first half action against the Buffalo Bulls in Neyland Stadium Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.

Dooley on LB AJ Johnson

A.J. Johnson

A.J. Johnson

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.

Ballers adjust.

"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."

Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble

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Comments » 66

tn_rockytop writes:

he is a " baller"

Huttdawg100 writes:

Keep Ballin' AJ!

Whiskey_Wizard writes:

Give that dude a year in the weight room and he will be a BIG TIME BALLER. Lathers back soon. Next yrs LBs are set. Lathers, Maggitt, AJ. Get us some DT's and we can compete!

snakeplissken writes:

A.J. made a couple of moves and Dooley said he was ready? I can't believe Dooley said that. Maybe that's why A.J. was put out there without evaluating him to see how he gets out of position so much and how slow he is. If we don't get some faster linebackers who know assignment football, we'll be in trouble next year too.

TommyJack writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

A.J. made a couple of moves and Dooley said he was ready? I can't believe Dooley said that. Maybe that's why A.J. was put out there without evaluating him to see how he gets out of position so much and how slow he is. If we don't get some faster linebackers who know assignment football, we'll be in trouble next year too.

get lost

chattavfl86 writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

A.J. made a couple of moves and Dooley said he was ready? I can't believe Dooley said that. Maybe that's why A.J. was put out there without evaluating him to see how he gets out of position so much and how slow he is. If we don't get some faster linebackers who know assignment football, we'll be in trouble next year too.

I think you are absolutely right. I think we need to get you out there. You obviously know "assignment football." What's your 40 time? Your #of reps at 225? Shuttle time? Do our coaches have a line of communication open with your high school or juco coach? Do you even have eligibility? You were awesome escaping from LA and new york, but that was years ago. Do you need money to buy a lock so you can shut your trap?

TheRealDragonSlayer writes:

in response to Whiskey_Wizard:

Give that dude a year in the weight room and he will be a BIG TIME BALLER. Lathers back soon. Next yrs LBs are set. Lathers, Maggitt, AJ. Get us some DT's and we can compete!

Trent Taylor, Danny O'Brien, and Damien Jacobs are all monster DTs that have already committed to the Vols for the 2012 class.

Monster linebackers, DEs and safeties/corners have also committed and more will be signing up.

Our entire defense in a couple of years will be very much like the LSUs and Bamas of today. Even next year, we will be a defense that will be very stout. And with Bray and Hunter back in the offense, there is no doubt that we will not be overlooked as an opponent.

Having said that, I am confident (and fully expect) that Matt Simms is going to bring the toughness we need to go through the SEC gauntlet we face this month. Bray has the same swagger, but the point is that we dont lose that with Simms.

I look forward to every weekend this month. One thing I know for sure that comforts me is that we will see hard nosed tough football for all 4 quarters from our team. That excites me more than anything. Wins and losses are one thing, but in the game of football, nothing is prettier than watching our team go all out against an opponent.

Go Vols!

ProwlinAndGrowlinSmokeyDog writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

A.J. made a couple of moves and Dooley said he was ready? I can't believe Dooley said that. Maybe that's why A.J. was put out there without evaluating him to see how he gets out of position so much and how slow he is. If we don't get some faster linebackers who know assignment football, we'll be in trouble next year too.

Well..I guess you could tell him all this stuff to his face to help him better his game...It's easier to trash them on a message board than to their faces.

According to Scout, these are the other schools that offered him:
Alabama
Auburn
Clemson
GTech
Stanford
USC

So I guess all of these thought he was too slow...GTech and Stanford may not seem like a big deal but both of them are much improved this year..According to the AP poll,Stanford is ranked 7th and GTech is 12th.

Smokey says AJ is the real deal..

abnermc writes:

in response to 1BigOrangeCountryFan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I believe that was Gainesville , Ga. . I wonder if UGA offered?

ProwlinAndGrowlinSmokeyDog writes:

in response to abnermc:

I believe that was Gainesville , Ga. . I wonder if UGA offered?

No,they didn't.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to TommyJack:

get lost

I did notice him taking bad angles on sweeps and end runs by Georgia several times. And he didn't gain any on the ball carrier when he did. He'll learn that college runners are faster than high school. But right now he is still a freshman making freshman mistakes.

Sweet_T writes:

in response to chattavfl86:

I think you are absolutely right. I think we need to get you out there. You obviously know "assignment football." What's your 40 time? Your #of reps at 225? Shuttle time? Do our coaches have a line of communication open with your high school or juco coach? Do you even have eligibility? You were awesome escaping from LA and new york, but that was years ago. Do you need money to buy a lock so you can shut your trap?

Hahaha. Love it. Well played.

cloudodust writes:

in response to 1BigOrangeCountryFan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

He wanted to be a Vol. If I recall correctly, he committed his Jr year of HS and never waivered throughout (do the timeline)....He has the abilities to become listed among the great LB's in Tennessee history.

ClemCash writes:

What indications do we have that Dooley would know what a baller looked like if he fell out of the sky and bounced off his forehead?

TommyJack has coached UT to as many "signature" wins as Dooley has, and for a helluva lot less money.

ClemCash writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

A.J. made a couple of moves and Dooley said he was ready? I can't believe Dooley said that. Maybe that's why A.J. was put out there without evaluating him to see how he gets out of position so much and how slow he is. If we don't get some faster linebackers who know assignment football, we'll be in trouble next year too.

Exactly right. AJ stands out as the big, slow, lumbering, methodical dude running 6 yards behind plays. I'm a little shocked to see Dooley refer to him as a "baller."

Dooley thinks he's a baller because he was able to apparently tie his shoes properly in practice or something. No wonder Dooley was in utter amazement at watching Demps and Rainey run.

Hope AJ gets a real head coach before his days at UT are up. To think what Fulmer and Chavis could mold this kid into.

crimsonviper writes:

in response to ClemCash:

What indications do we have that Dooley would know what a baller looked like if he fell out of the sky and bounced off his forehead?

TommyJack has coached UT to as many "signature" wins as Dooley has, and for a helluva lot less money.

TJ is cool...You on the other hand,not so much.
You are the classic example of the jealous dog barking the loudest...Zip it,Fido.

Huttdawg100 writes:

in response to TheRealDragonSlayer:

Trent Taylor, Danny O'Brien, and Damien Jacobs are all monster DTs that have already committed to the Vols for the 2012 class.

Monster linebackers, DEs and safeties/corners have also committed and more will be signing up.

Our entire defense in a couple of years will be very much like the LSUs and Bamas of today. Even next year, we will be a defense that will be very stout. And with Bray and Hunter back in the offense, there is no doubt that we will not be overlooked as an opponent.

Having said that, I am confident (and fully expect) that Matt Simms is going to bring the toughness we need to go through the SEC gauntlet we face this month. Bray has the same swagger, but the point is that we dont lose that with Simms.

I look forward to every weekend this month. One thing I know for sure that comforts me is that we will see hard nosed tough football for all 4 quarters from our team. That excites me more than anything. Wins and losses are one thing, but in the game of football, nothing is prettier than watching our team go all out against an opponent.

Go Vols!

Korren Kirven will be visiting UT this weekend. If we can land him, we would seriously improve our d line; that would be two 4 star and a very high 3 star DT for 2012. Infuse Maggitt, AJ, O'Brien, Santos, Mo Couch, Tugboat, Jacobs, throw in Denico Autry and Kirven, and that's a significant improvement at the defensive front 7. But we've got to get a shutdown corner.

BigBadVol writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

A.J. made a couple of moves and Dooley said he was ready? I can't believe Dooley said that. Maybe that's why A.J. was put out there without evaluating him to see how he gets out of position so much and how slow he is. If we don't get some faster linebackers who know assignment football, we'll be in trouble next year too.

Really troll? 9:30 at night and you are trolling a rivals message board? You must live a very sad life.

navarrebeachvol writes:

in response to MerlOT_GoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

at least he has a couple more than you, keyboard-boy. same for snake.

ProwlinAndGrowlinSmokeyDog writes:

in response to MerlOT_GoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

You need to lay off the wine,Mr.Merlot because Bama and Auburn thought he was good enough to play for them..One more thing, take the "Go Vols" out of your screenname because YOU'RE NO VOL FAN..Again,another phony that calls himself a Vol fan.

Smokey says he hates posers and wannabe Vol fans..

TommyJack writes:

in response to crimsonviper:

TJ is cool...You on the other hand,not so much.
You are the classic example of the jealous dog barking the loudest...Zip it,Fido.

BWahahaha, Vipe. KNS sponsored trolls prolific lately.

Volunatic writes:

in response to ProwlinAndGrowlinSmokeyDog:

Well..I guess you could tell him all this stuff to his face to help him better his game...It's easier to trash them on a message board than to their faces.

According to Scout, these are the other schools that offered him:
Alabama
Auburn
Clemson
GTech
Stanford
USC

So I guess all of these thought he was too slow...GTech and Stanford may not seem like a big deal but both of them are much improved this year..According to the AP poll,Stanford is ranked 7th and GTech is 12th.

Smokey says AJ is the real deal..

Facts mean nothing to snake trollkin.
(Kurt Russell would probably beat the living daylights out of the little weasel for tarnishing the reputation of a great movie character by using that name.)

daporter22#1402249 writes:

Vols played Georgia tough with field goal exchanges in 1st half. Stagnant UT offense in 2nd 1/2 put game burden on defense. We we're never tested in secondary w/fast receivers untill recently. First bomb should have prompted corner blitz opportunities w/Gordon. Appeared like we were waiting to get beat as opposed to delivering the offensive and defensive blows. Responding as opposed to reacting to game situations is protocol. Striking quickly at point of attack w/running game is not taught, but the violent part of game necessary to win. Falling on the ground with the ball is rare in Pop Warner, but is a defensive ball protecting tactic w/Vol ground game. Let em know were killers on offense!

illinoisvolfan writes:

in response to 1BigOrangeCountryFan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I understand your confusion. I often think of Gainesville, FL when I drive by a landfill on a hot day.

Theo writes:

in response to ClemCash:

Exactly right. AJ stands out as the big, slow, lumbering, methodical dude running 6 yards behind plays. I'm a little shocked to see Dooley refer to him as a "baller."

Dooley thinks he's a baller because he was able to apparently tie his shoes properly in practice or something. No wonder Dooley was in utter amazement at watching Demps and Rainey run.

Hope AJ gets a real head coach before his days at UT are up. To think what Fulmer and Chavis could mold this kid into.

PPO....yawn.

Volunatic writes:

in response to 1BigOrangeCountryFan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

That's good stuff right there.

Volunatic writes:

in response to illinoisvolfan:

I understand your confusion. I often think of Gainesville, FL when I drive by a landfill on a hot day.

Another excellent contribution.

brokendownoldvol writes:

He's made for the middle. He does look slow at outside linebacker.

RUstilltalking writes:

If he is such a "baller" in the SEC, why do tailbacks keeping running past him without him touching them? Not an indictment, just an observation.

snakeplissken writes:

in response to RUstilltalking:

If he is such a "baller" in the SEC, why do tailbacks keeping running past him without him touching them? Not an indictment, just an observation.

Exactly! Like someone mentioned above, he's a Mike (middle linebacker). Our coaches have him out of position and we'll continue getting burned by good running backs. Plus, he's got totally blown out of the lane a few times already this year. Crowell could have walked by him without getting touched on that long run.

navarrebeachvol writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

Exactly! Like someone mentioned above, he's a Mike (middle linebacker). Our coaches have him out of position and we'll continue getting burned by good running backs. Plus, he's got totally blown out of the lane a few times already this year. Crowell could have walked by him without getting touched on that long run.

snakeoil, any chance of you coaching the team for Coach Dooley? You are soooooo smart and all. I just have to wonder why you're not coaching somewhere with all your vast knowledge. And that, boys and girls, is what they call in the business....sarcasm. good day.

ProwlinAndGrowlinSmokeyDog writes:

in response to MerlOT_GoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Typical troll-like response..No offense taken when you said I suck at the internet because you're the one trolling the internet 24/7,not me..But I digress..whatever Mr.Merlot.

FLORIDAGATORHATER writes:

We don't have any "ballers" on this team. Sorry.

snakeplissken writes:

in response to navarrebeachvol:

snakeoil, any chance of you coaching the team for Coach Dooley? You are soooooo smart and all. I just have to wonder why you're not coaching somewhere with all your vast knowledge. And that, boys and girls, is what they call in the business....sarcasm. good day.

Typical response for people who can't support their position.

Volunatic writes:

... says the guy who got nailed today making up stuff to "support his position".

Pompey writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

A.J. made a couple of moves and Dooley said he was ready? I can't believe Dooley said that. Maybe that's why A.J. was put out there without evaluating him to see how he gets out of position so much and how slow he is. If we don't get some faster linebackers who know assignment football, we'll be in trouble next year too.

....thanks for advertising your lack of knowledge of the position....an occasional laps from an exceptional freshman LB is forgivable.…….your stupidity isn't !

transplantiam writes:

Why do the real Vol fans continue to give comment space to the idiots that constantly do nothing but make idiotic comments about our team, players, and coaches? Ignore the DA's and they might fade away. As long as someone answers them they will continue the same phooey. I just counted the comments on this story and 36, yes I said 36, of the comments are responses and comments by and to the trolls on this board. 36 out of 44 comments are responses to trolls. Please, please, quit responding to their garbage. The real Vol fans are starting to sound as stupid as the trolls by allowing them to get under your skin. I enjoy reading actual football discussions but this is nothing but phooey.

rockytopjeff writes:

in response to transplantiam:

Why do the real Vol fans continue to give comment space to the idiots that constantly do nothing but make idiotic comments about our team, players, and coaches? Ignore the DA's and they might fade away. As long as someone answers them they will continue the same phooey. I just counted the comments on this story and 36, yes I said 36, of the comments are responses and comments by and to the trolls on this board. 36 out of 44 comments are responses to trolls. Please, please, quit responding to their garbage. The real Vol fans are starting to sound as stupid as the trolls by allowing them to get under your skin. I enjoy reading actual football discussions but this is nothing but phooey.

Amen Brother!!!! These players are 18 and 19 years old and most played against mediocre High School talent and then you throw them in the best conference in the land, most of them are going to make mistakes, as they should. It's called "Valuable Game Experience" and it should really show in the next year or so. These Freshmen are learning on the job, let's all just sit back and relax and realize that we are in year 2 of a 5 year rebuilding process. We play undoubtedly the toughest schedule of any team in the country. Give it time folks. Go Vols!!

navarrebeachvol writes:

in response to transplantiam:

Why do the real Vol fans continue to give comment space to the idiots that constantly do nothing but make idiotic comments about our team, players, and coaches? Ignore the DA's and they might fade away. As long as someone answers them they will continue the same phooey. I just counted the comments on this story and 36, yes I said 36, of the comments are responses and comments by and to the trolls on this board. 36 out of 44 comments are responses to trolls. Please, please, quit responding to their garbage. The real Vol fans are starting to sound as stupid as the trolls by allowing them to get under your skin. I enjoy reading actual football discussions but this is nothing but phooey.

newsflash Sparky, they don't go away no matter what happens-ignore or respond. I've been on here since it was a paid site in 2005-2006 and the trolls and haters have always been here. We didn’t get as many back then because most of them couldn’t aford to pony up the $4.95 a month. I don't let them get under my skin, I just enjoy a good troll smack down as much as the next Vol fan. Sorry, that's the way it is...GBO

navarrebeachvol writes:

in response to snakeplissken:

Typical response for people who can't support their position.

your typical position would seem to be your cranium inserted firmly into your (*)

volfan8#549730 writes:

in response to MerlOT_GoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Who wet in your Lucky Charms?

chattavfl86 writes:

in response to MerlOT_GoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

This "holiday season" wont be all bad. For instance, I plan on getting you a present. Spoiler alert: its a pack of razor blades and a list of reasons mommy never loved you. Im sure you'll make us all happy. Troll lalalala la lalala!

Volunatic writes:

in response to MerlOT_GoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I hate to disappoint you, but even if your worst-case scenario were to occur, the buyout is too steep. Dooley negotiated the contract well enough that he gets a realistic time frame for rebuilding the team-- the knee-jerk squawkers won't have any influence.

FREOVOL writes:

Could Dooley have meant Austin Johnson? Did you see that tackle Austin made on the goal line in the GA game? That was the best tackle I've seen a Vol make this year.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to MerlOT_GoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Kinda like your streak of never posting a comment that matters. The rest of us have pretty much learned not to take YOU too seriously.

rockytopvol writes:

AJ is a middle backer due to lack of speed, doing good where he's at but next year he'll be in middle or at DE bank on it.

snakeplissken writes:

in response to Volunatic:

I hate to disappoint you, but even if your worst-case scenario were to occur, the buyout is too steep. Dooley negotiated the contract well enough that he gets a realistic time frame for rebuilding the team-- the knee-jerk squawkers won't have any influence.

According to sources at UT, Our AD Hart says Dooley gets 4 years to get us to the SECC game. UT doesn't have to win it, but has to play in it by the 2013 season.
I think that's fair.

jhayes0926#638474 writes:

My opinion (fwiw) is that AJ has loads of potential. He is inexperienced and it has shown because he has been out of position many times and takes bad angles because his is not accustomed to the speed of the SEC running backs. He is more natural for the Mike, but we have to use him where we need him - no other choice. We are still a year away. We have to be patient.

allvol8 writes:

in response to CrippledCoon:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

LOL

fbvolmom writes:

in response to 1BigOrangeCountryFan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

He was highly recruited by Florida and they were disappointed!! AJ loved the Vols from the beginning!!!

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