KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- One year after cracking Tennessee's starting lineup as a freshman, linebacker A.J. Johnson has emerged as a playmaker on both sides of the ball.
Johnson had one of the best performances of his career last week with 11 tackles and also made his collegiate debut on offense in a 37-20 loss to Florida. As a quarterback in Tennessee's Wildcat formation, Johnson ran for 5 yards on two carries, including a 1-yard touchdown.
The sight of a 240-pound linebacker barreling toward the end zone might have caught the 14th-ranked Gators off guard, but it didn't surprise his coaches or teammates. They'd heard about Johnson's exploits as a Wildcat quarterback at Gainesville (Ga.) High School ever since he arrived on campus.
"I believe that's one (reason) they thought I could do Wildcat, because in high school I ran it so well," Johnson said.
Johnson certainly made teammates aware of that fact.
"I remember last year in the hotels, we used to room together and he'd pull up on his computer the highlights from his high school," sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "I didn't believe it was him, but he ran it well."
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller estimated Johnson carried the ball out of the Wildcat 70-80 times in high school and was stopped for no gain only twice. Miller recalled one game in which Johnson kept the ball on 15 consecutive plays and gained 75 yards to help Gainesville run out the clock.
"We had to call timeout one time for him to catch his breath," Miller said.
Johnson won't get that type of workload at Tennessee, but he made a strong case last week that he deserves more opportunities to run the Wildcat. He could get his next chance Saturday when Akron comes to Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee led 14-13 in the third quarter and faced third-and-2 from the Florida 28 last week when Johnson kept the drive going with a 4-yard burst. Five Florida defenders had swarmed Johnson by the time they finally brought him down. Johnson capped the drive by breezing into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 1.
"The other night in the Florida game, how it opened up and he ran into the end zone, that's how it happened so many times" in high school, Miller said. "It's like the other team would almost concede and give us the short yardage."
Johnson's versatility makes his No. 45 jersey number appropriate.
He scored his touchdown the same night Tennessee retired the No. 45 jersey of 1956 Heisman Trophy runner-up Johnny Majors, a multidimensional performer in his own right as a single-wing tailback, defensive back and punter. A new university policy allows current and future players to use a number formerly worn by anyone who gets his jersey retired from this point on. Majors is the first honoree to whom this policy applies.
"I know he played both ways back in his time and he was a great player," Johnson said. "I think it's pretty cool I got to play a little both ways as well. I know he's a great player. It's an honor to wear his jersey."
While his two carries against Florida have garnered plenty of attention, Johnson also is performing better than ever on defense. Now that safety Brian Randolph is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Johnson and safety Byron Moore are the Vols' top two remaining tacklers with 20 stops each.
"He plays every play like it's his last," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "It doesn't matter what the score (is). That's why he's a great player."
Johnson ranked second on the Vols last season with 80 tackles, the second-highest total by a true freshman in school history. The only Vol with more tackles as a true freshman was Eric Berry, an eventual Jim Thorpe Award winner and first-round draft pick.
Yet Johnson continues seeking ways to improve.
Teammates say Johnson weighed as much as 255 pounds last season. His listed weight now is down to 240. The change has helped Johnson improve his speed. He's constantly learning more and getting better.
"He's being a student about it," defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "He's studying it. He's applying it. He's taking football very serious, and that's the nice thing about it."
There's one potential flaw in his game. Johnson's versatility doesn't necessarily extend to his quarterbacking skills.
Although Johnson says he has a "pretty good" arm, he seldom passed while operating as a Wildcat quarterback in high school. That apparently was by design.
"That's not his real forte," Miller said. "Now he won't tell you that."
Dooley remains confident his sophomore standout could throw the ball out of the Wildcat. After all, Johnson's already done just about everything else.
"He's A.J.," Dooley said. "He can do anything."