A.J. Johnson, UT linebackers tackling new goals

Defense rebuilding from scratch

Adam Brimer/News Sentinel
Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson tries to tackle Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel in the third quarter at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 15, 2012.

Photo by Adam Brimer, Knoxville News Sentinel

Adam Brimer/News Sentinel Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson tries to tackle Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel in the third quarter at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 15, 2012.

Tennessee football practice on April 9, 2013

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Butch Jones likes easy-to-remember numbers and statistics that both motivate and inform.

So it was little surprise that junior linebacker A.J. Johnson quickly rattled off a numerical goal Tuesday when asked about the progress of the defense.

“Our goal is to keep first down efficiency under three yards,” he said. “Eighty percent, that’s our goal.”

Wait. Three yards or less on 80 percent of first downs? Even factoring in incomplete passes, that’s a tall order.

“Yes, sir,” Johnson replied.

Suffice it to say, last year’s defense was a long way from that aspiration, although many of the unit’s woes in 2012 can be traced to prominent failures on third down.

But coaches have tried to erase the memories of the defense that was ranked near the bottom of the country. And they’ve told Johnson, whose 138 tackles were best in the SEC and fourth in the country, that they’re worried more about other numbers than tackles.

“In this defense, my goal is to get my job done first,” Johnson said. “My tackles might go down; they might go up.”

Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen has told Johnson they don’t need him to be everywhere all the time. The Vols just need him to do his job.

Part of the challenge has been deciphering what exactly that job is. Confusion reigned during Sal Sunseri’s tenure as defensive coordinator. A complex defense and players ill-equipped to handle it yielded predictable results.

New coordinator John Jancek tore down the defense to the simplest level and started rebuilding from scratch this spring. That has eased the pressure on the linebackers, who are tasked with making many of the reads and calls on defense.

The numbers have slimmed down, too. A year ago, Tennessee needed four linebackers. Today, they use three — and often just two, given the frequent nickel sets that replace a third linebacker with a fifth defensive back.

The changes aren’t dramatic. The fourth linebacker in last year’s system is now a Leo end and performs many of the same tasks, but now starts by lining up with his hand on the ground.

After Johnson, the Vols have options. Safety Brent Brewer moved to linebacker to enhance team speed. And coaches and teammates have raved about Dontavis Sapp.

“Dontavis is becoming a great player,” Brewer said. “He’s improving every day.”

Seniors Channing Fugate and Raiques Crump and third-year sophomore Christian Harris will provide depth.

Junior Curt Maggitt is the wild card.

Coaches have floated the idea of moving him to the Leo end spot. If they feel good about the situation, that idea becomes more palatable.

Maggitt is sitting out spring practice with an injury and coaches don’t have to make a decision until this summer.

Until then, Johnson is repeating a mantra that conference-leading tacklers rarely have to make.

“I need to do better,” he said.

Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.

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Comments » 13

TeamXer writes:

I'd just like to take this opportunity to say- GO VOLS!

reidtownriverrat writes:

Being in the right position on def is first and foremost. The next biggest concern is speed. Last season we could'nt run anyone down, that scares me the most. Thirdly when we do catch them we need to hear the whistle blow.

RoadTrip writes:

I like the attention to detail they are learning. Do your job the correct way and get after it. The D will be much improved this season.

VolGrad writes:

If we could have just prevented the conversion of 3rd and 20+ last season, we would probably have won at least a couple more games. I have suppressed the memory of exactly how many times we allowed that. I just know there were several.

That's my goal for this defense: allow no 3rd and 20 conversions. Don't give up the big play!!!

Yes, I think we will be much improved this year on defense also.

ColdBlackWind writes:

We have been so bad. Time to make some more Big Orange Moments. Go D! I say it's great, to be, a Tennessee Vol!

richvol writes:

The coaches are focusing on improved tackling. To me that is the best way to improve this defense. Just get them on the ground. Missed tackles killed us last year and it has been terrible for many years.

6972 writes:

I hope it is smack mouth in your face defense this year. I'm hoping they can make running backs curse the day they were born. If you want to take the fight out of the dog, knock his jock up between his shoulder blades a few times then he will be hoping it a pass play.

Damitman writes:

I love the coaches thinking. Keep it simple and the speed will come. Do your job and everyone else do theirs. Can't wait till fall and shout "how 'bout them VOLS!!!

CroKev writes:

I think the defense will be a LOT better and the offense will be a LITTLE worse making for a 7-5 or 8-4 team. However, every Saturday I will still expect my Vols to win no matter the opponent...

pcorange writes:

I don't see how this team can go anywhere but up. Go Butch, Go Big Orange!

UTvols33 writes:

I like the fact that this coaching staff adjusts their strategy to fit the level of talent at the position, rather than "throwing a bunch of stuff at them and seeing what sticks." They are actually teaching these guys, it's great.


antonio14313 writes:

my 4th down fist is in the air...

go vols!


thevoice writes:

in response to mempuss:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Yep! Love his attitude: humble yet helluva great player. Rare combo.

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