When Herman Lathers went down with a broken ankle last summer, Tennessee urgently needed linebackers.
Young, old, big, small — the Vols were in no position to be picky. Coach Derek Dooley wanted playmakers, and a true freshman from Gainesville, Ga., quickly answered the call.
A.J. Johnson caught Dooley's eye on the first day of practice, joined Curt Maggitt as the Vols' first starting freshmen linebackers in history and put up eye-popping numbers that made him a consensus freshman All-American.
"He made a couple of moves, and then I said, 'He's ready,' " Dooley recalled of that first day of practice. "He's a baller, all right. You can see 'em like that."
Johnson is trying to build on the reputation he made as a freshman as part of what could be the strongest unit in a revamped defense.
"I think it helps to have a year under my belt," Johnson said Saturday during an interview at the Vols' media day. "I know the game speed. I know all the situations."
Johnson is surprisingly critical of his play as a freshman — "I didn't have great technique," he said — but the results spoke loudly. He finished with 80 tackles, best of any freshman in the SEC, including 36 in a three-game span against then-No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama and No. 14 South Carolina. Only Eric Berry had a comparable stretch as a freshman.
His impressive first season has raised hopes for the second. It begins Aug. 31 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, just 50 miles southwest of his hometown in a stadium he remembers from high school playoff games.
"I know it's a great environment," he said.
Johnson was a consensus four-star prospect who arrived in Knoxville with high expectations that were quickly inflated by then-line coach Lance Thompson, who raved about Johnson and Maggitt after a mid-August scrimmage.
His comments were similar to those of current defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, who opined earlier this month that Johnson and Maggitt were among the finest young linebackers he'd ever coached. That hasn't stopped Sunseri from pushing Johnson in practice.
"He's not really a crazy man," Johnson said with a laugh. "He's a great coach. As players we know he wants the best for us. He really wants us to go out there and learn the defense."
Johnson said he played in a 3-4 scheme in high school, so adjusting to some of Sunseri's changes hasn't been difficult. He also sharpened his focus in the weight room during the offseason, watching his diet and chiseling his frame down to a firmer 240 pounds.
He's taken advice from Lathers, who has been sidelined with an injured quadriceps for much of camp, but has promised to be ready to play in the opener. When he does, he'll be lining up next to Johnson and Maggitt for the first time.
"I saw a lot of potential in those guys last year, but as freshmen, they didn't have the chance to learn the defense like they needed to," Lathers said. "Since last year ended, I've seen guys who are willing and eager to learn. They stayed hungry and humble and put in the work they needed to. We all studied together and spent a lot of time together. Those guys are real special to me. I'm glad I get to play with them."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat