Tennessee exited an emotional home loss to Florida battered and bleeding. The healing process could be aided by Johnson & Johnson.
Volunteers sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson’s Wildcat package was unveiled on Saturday. It was a light load of double duty, but Johnson maximized production in a two-carry debut.
On the Volunteers’ final scoring drive — midway through the third quarter — Johnson joined his offensive mates, took a snap and converted a 3rd-and-2 with a 4-yard run to the Florida 24-yard line. Six plays later he converted a 3rd-and-goal from the 1 with a touchdown that gave the Vols a 20-13 lead.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder could become a Tim Tebow-like presence on third down, particularly for a team with a running game that’s made long odds of third-and-shorts.
“It was pretty exciting getting a few touches and getting that one score for the team and trying to help get a win,” Johnson said. “I hope we keep that role in. You know, coach said I did good at it this game, so we’re gonna see if I get to do some more. …
“In high school I did quite a few. … I know some games I had, like, three touchdowns, over 200 yards and stuff like that.”
At times, Johnson was a dominant two-way player while becoming a four-star prospect at Gainseville (Ga.). He rushed 17 times for 192 yards and three TDs in a hard-fought 20-13 victory his senior year.
“I remember last year in the hotels, like, we used to room together,” sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt said, “and he’d … pull up on his computer the highlights from his high school and I didn’t believe it was him. But he ran it — he ran it well.”
Maggitt said Johnson looks more explosive after going from around 255 pounds last year to 245 pounds this year.
“I talked to him over the summer,” Maggitt said, “and I told him slimming down got him a lot faster.”
Not that the strength displayed during an 80-tackle All-Freshman SEC season as a true freshman has been sacrificed. Indeed, Johnson can weigh on linebackers and safeties like Tebow or Cam Newton.
“Nobody wanted to jump in front of 245 downhill like that,” Maggitt said in reference to Johnson’s TD run.
Johnson was also strong on defense. He had a game-high 11 tackles, two quarterback hurries and one tackle for loss against Florida.
On the tackle behind the line of scrimmage — a 6-yard loss that snuffed a 3rd-and-1 to force a punt early in the fourth quarter — Johnson slung tight end Omarius Hines to the ground as if he was a scat-back.
He also punished quarterback Jeff Driskel as he approached the sideline after covering a lot of ground downfield.
“He plays every play like it’s his last,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “Doesn’t matter what the score (is). That’s why he’s a great player.”
Driskel did rush for 81 yards on eight carries, a reminder that despite all of the tools UT quarterback Tyler Bray has, scheming defensive coordinators can find solace in not having to account for his running ability. Perhaps Johnson will continue to offer some 11-on-11 looks on short-yardage third- and fourth-down plays.
“I mean, even when we were recruiting him I told him we’d do that (Wildcat),” Dooley said. “We didn’t do it last year just because he was a freshman trying to learn the defense.”
Johnson looked like a future NFL player immediately last year, particularly against the better teams. His top three tackle totals came against the schedule’s highest-ranked teams — Alabama, LSU and South Carolina. He had 13 stops at Alabama, 12 versus South Carolina and 11 against LSU.
Of course, those were all Tennessee losses. The Vols appeared capable of turning the corner against ranked opponents when Florida visited Saturday, but they seemed to blow a tire coming out of the final turn. Florida needed only four plays to produce 155 yards in the pivotal sequence.
“It’s pretty frustrating to know we were just a few little plays off, a few little reads off, a few little alignments off of stopping them big ole’ plays and having a win,” Johnson said. “They didn’t out-physical us or nothing like that. It was on our part of not getting aligned right.”
Johnson said it was positive sign that the loss seemed to hurt the Vols more than the one at Florida last year.
Hosting Akron (1-2) Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (CSS) should be a good salve, but you wonder if Johnson & Johnson will be kept up under wraps until he returns to his old stomping grounds to take on Georgia on Sept. 29 (3:30 p.m., CBS).
Who knows, he might even unload a jump pass between the hedges.
“I’d say I have a pretty good arm,” Johnson said with a smile.