Tennessee linebackers Dontavis Sapp, left, and A.J. Johnson take a break during practice at Haslam Field in Knoxville on Aug. 10. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)
KNOXVILLE — One year after leading the Southeastern Conference in tackles, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson wants to become a better leader of his own defense.
Johnson made 138 tackles last season and averaged 11½ per game to finish fourth among all Football Bowl Subdivision players, but he couldn't stop Tennessee's defense from ranking statistically among the worst in school history.
Tennessee's new coaching staff doesn't particularly care whether Johnson repeats as the SEC's tackling leader. They just want Johnson to make sure Tennessee's defense improves.
"We've challenged him," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "He's the alpha male of the defense. He's the leader. What made Ray Lewis, Ray Lewis? He owned the defense. He took ownership. That's what we expect from the middle linebacker of our defense."
Johnson's received the message.
He isn't spending the preseason talking about how many tackles he wants to make or how many records he wants to break. Johnson instead discusses how he can make Tennessee a winner again.
"I know tackles are going to come here and there," Johnson said. "The main thing is just winning, everyone going out there and getting their assignments done. Tackles are going to come."
Last season, senior linebacker Herman Lathers was the vocal leader of Tennessee's defense. Now that Lathers has graduated, Johnson is asserting himself more.
"It's something you've got to do every day, come out and go 100 percent and talk to your teammates and inspire people," Johnson said. "Make sure you're not lacking, and if you see someone lacking, pick them up and get them back going."
Johnson's teammates have noticed the difference.
"He's been stepping up, speaking more and getting people on track," senior linebacker Brent Brewer said. "A couple of other people have stepped up too. He's making our defense a lot better and everybody's following. He led by example (before). He always went out there, played hard and did the right thing when coaches asked him to, but he wasn't a big talker."
Johnson, a junior from Gainesville, Ga., also has adjusted his game to fit the new staff's philosophy.
During his first two years at Tennessee, Johnson showed he's one of the nation's most prolific tacklers. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen marvels at Johnson's "uncanny knack" for playing through traffic.
But the Vols aren't concerned about his overall tackle totals and instead want Johnson to produce more big plays while working within the system. Johnson had 8½ tackles for loss last season. He has only one forced fumble, one sack and no interceptions in his career.
"The way we're going to be successful is by playing team defense, everybody doing their job — every man 1 through 11 — each and every single play," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "That's how we've approached it with A.J. as well as all the players on our defense. It's not just one guy running around making 130 to 140 tackles and (us) playing lousy defense. It's about the team and playing team defense. That's been our emphasis."
Jancek said Johnson has done everything the staff has asked of him. Johnson savored the opportunity to learn from one of Tennessee's all-time best leaders last week when Al Wilson — an All-America linebacker on the 1998 national championship team — spoke to the team.
Johnson called the meeting with Wilson "a blessing" and said the former NFL star told him to keep playing hard and keep leading.
"We talk about alpha males and beta males — alpha males being the lions of the jungle and the betas being the hyenas — Al Wilson is the ultimate alpha," Thigpen said.
Johnson wants to be thought of in similar terms some day.
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