Butch Jones, Tennessee relying on A.J. Johnson to pick team off the mat
Ask Butch Jones to pick out Tennessee’s most valuable player and he’ll give you a name within seconds.
A star on a bad team throughout his career, senior linebacker A.J. Johnson is the Vols’ outspoken leader, an elite performer who has played nearly every defensive snap this fall in hopes of improving his NFL Draft stock after returning to Knoxville for a final season.
Statistically, Tennessee’s defense is as strong as its been since 2009 and much of that success falls on Johnson’s shoulders who has an SEC-leading 78 tackles.
Jones and the Vols need another monster outing from Johnson this week against fourth-ranked Alabama, a cross-division rival that’s beaten Tennessee eight consecutive times.
Eclipsing his career-best 21-tackle effort posted in 2012 against Mississippi State would likely seal a first-team All-SEC selection and may even keep the Vols within striking distance against a foe boasting a talent edge at nearly every starting position.
“I’ve spoken about us getting back to making (the rivalry) relevant,” Jones said. “A lot of these individuals, we talk about the mid-state, they’ve grown up on this rivalry. They understand the magnitude of this rivalry which means so many things to so many people.”
Last weekend against Ole Miss, Johnson posted his typical double-digit tackle effort and dominated the first quarter and a half of football, helping the Tennessee defense force six three-and-outs on the Rebels’ first eight possessions.
Johnson’s rarely come off the field over the last month, but has shown no ill effects from extensive playing time. The lack of rest hasn’t bothered him this season.
“I feel good every week,” the Lott Award quarterfinalist said. “It doesn’t matter to me, I feel good every week. I can play 80 snaps or 40 snaps, I’m always ready to go and feel good.”
Saturday’s meeting with the Crimson Tide will feature a homecoming of sorts for Johnson and Alabama quarterback Blake Sims. The two starred on the same team at Gainesville High School in Georgia, but their college careers have taken different paths.
Sims, a fifth-year senior and rookie starter, leads the SEC in touchdown to interception ratio and gives the Crimson Tide an element the offense hasn’t seen during the Nick Saban era — mobility at the quarterback position.
Alabama remains in position to — with help — to win the SEC West or capture an at-large Playoff berth with an 11-1 finish in the regular season. Tennessee’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, hoping to avoid a 3-5 hole with four games to play.
The Vols are seeking their first bowl trip since 2010, the year after Lane Kiffin left Knoxville.