Can A.J. Johnson break 100 tackles again in 2014?
Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson is coming off back-to-back seasons of 100 or more tackles. The senior linebacker enters his final season in Knoxville with career totals of 324 tackles (160 solo), 21.5 tackles for loss and averages 9.0 tackles per game. Electing to return for his senior year, Johnson enters with even greater expectation than years’ past, including preseason All-SEC first-team and All-SEC Coaches first-team honors, as well as watch list nominations for the Butkus, Lombardi, Nagurski and Bednarik Awards.
Johnson has enjoyed a stellar, decorated career in Knoxville that has been eluded by one thing, winning. Despite his individual success, Johnson has been the bright spot for some of the worst Tennessee defenses in school history and has yet to experience a single bowl game appearance. Tennessee has gone 5-7 in each of the past three seasons and struggled to stop the powerhouse offenses of the SEC. Johnson, however, has been the exception, consistently producing against top-tier competition.
So what can should we expect from Johnson this season? It would be hard to imagine that he doesn’t remain the centerpiece of Tennessee’s defense. With yet another year of experience under his belt, Johnson will most likely cap off a stellar career with yet another extremely productive season. Playing behind an inexperienced defensive line may increase his odds of recording another 100 tackle season. Tennessee’s front four returns zero starters and may force Johnson to capitalize on chase downs rather than opening gaps. This does, however, also hinder some big plays that may open for Johnson in the backfield. The addition of a healthy Curt Maggitt will also play a factor. Maggitt could take offensive pressure off of Johnson, while also stealing away tackling opportunities. But when it’s all said and done, Johnson will once again pick up the slack for a struggling defensive line and record NFL prospect stats.