The middle linebacker is considered the quarterback of the defense, so the task facing freshman Jakob Johnson on Saturday against Missouri was nearly as difficult as the one that faced sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs when he had to take over the job for the injured Justin Worley in October.
Thanks to the indefinite suspension of senior A.J. Johnson, who has been accused of rape along with cornerback Michael Williams but not charged, Jakob Johnson was thrust into that role and forced to have the entire defense down well enough to get the entire unit properly lined up each play and call out changes at the line if necessary.
Especially when it came to the mental aspect of the position, the Vols’ coaching staff was pleased with his performance.
“For the most part, I was pleased with the way he handled himself,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “Obviously, he’s got a long way to go. He didn’t do anything real dynamic, but he did his job for the most part. That’s really what we were hoping for going into the game. There were some things that he was challenged with that he did a really good job of. They were moving the back around, so he had to make some calls on the move. He did a really nice job.”
The Vols did want more production, however. as Tennessee coach Butch Jones said after the game. A.J. Johnson was the second leading tackler in the SEC when he was suspended with 101 tackles, leading the conference in tackles per game with 10.1. Jakob Johnson finished Saturday’s game with just four.
“The communication was right on and he did everything he asked him to do,” linebackers coach Tom Thigpen said. “Of course, I want more plays out of him. I want him to make more plays, especially in space.”
Thigpen said the problem was that the freshman Johnson had was getting himself out into space.
“He held on a block a couple of times,” Thigpen said. “They ran the option one time and he held on to the block, actually twice he couldn’t get off. We went back to the drawing boards, ripping and getting off blocks. (Missouri had) a big tight end. Bigger guys, you’ve gotta be more violent with your hands and learn how to rip off. That’s the one thing he struggled with. In the core, on the alignment and things, we thought he did a really good job as far as playing with his hands on the interior. He’s just gotta be more aware when he’s out in space on how to get off blocks and make tackles.”
The mental game will get more difficult for him this week, however. Though Missouri had a good offense, the Tigers spent most of the game in a one-back, spread offense. Vanderbilt changes personnel constantly.
“He’s gotta be on,” Thigpen said. “Last week, to us, was a lot easier game plan for him. He’s had a million reps with it. What they do, many teams don’t line up in two backs, three tight ends, four tight ends, it’s a challenges. Each one of those personnels has a difficulty.”
Junior center Mack Crowder was back at practice on Wednesday for the period open to the media for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain and left knee sprain against Kentucky on Nov. 15. Offensive line coach Don Mahoney said he has a chance to return for Saturday’s game (TV: SEC Network, 4 p.m.) against Vanderbilt (3-8, 0-7 SEC.)
“We’re gonna still see,” Mahoney said. “We’ve got tomorrow and Friday and all the way through until Saturday at 4. He’s made positive strides, He’s moving around well. His attitude is outstanding in that he’s not dwelling over the injury or what occurred. It was encouraging to me.
Sophomore wide receiver Jason Croom went down in Tuesday practice with what Jones said were just leg cramps. He was not present for the open periods of practice Wednesday, but offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said he returned later.
“He did some rehab and came out later in practice,” Bajakian said. “We fully expect to have him.”