Playing in the Under Armour All-American Game on Jan. 5 was a form of a freshman orientation for Gainesville senior A.J. Johnson, which he breezed through with flying colors.
There were no campus tours or class schedule planned for Johnson, a future University of Tennessee linebacker, but it was a crash course in what playing at the next level will be like. If the game played at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. was any indication, Johnson is going to be ready to play on Saturdays very quickly.
“You have a tendency as a coach to wonder how a player stacks up against players at the next level,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “After the way he played, A.J. stacks up really well.
“I have no doubt he’s one of the best linebackers in the country.”
In the Under Armour All-Star game, there were many highly touted high school seniors on the field at the same time. It’s a brief evaluation period, but it gives an initial taste of which players are most game ready for the college game. Johnson certainly didn’t disappoint in the game that was broadcast on ESPN.
After leading northeast Georgia in tackles during the fall, he made some impressive plays against the nation’s top offensive stars.
According to Miller, who traveled to central Florida for the game, Johnson’s most impressive play was when he stuffed Carver-Columbus’ running back Isaiah Crowell, ranked the fifth best running back prospect by Rivals.com, for no gain near the goal line.
“Most of the players in that game are big-time commitments and A.J. held his own,” Miller said. “He had a really good week.”
Scout.com recruiting analyst Chad Simmons attended practice at the Disney Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., during the days leading into the game and liked what he saw from Johnson.
Highlighting Johnson’s performance in practice, according to Simmons, was his ability to play in space and make some interceptions, along with his ability to attack the ball carrier running downhill.
“A.J. had a real good week,” Simmons said. “He’s physical, played with a lot of energy and was better in space than I’d seen in the past.
“He’s already got good size at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds and showed he can really play inside linebacker at the next level.”
With his performance, Simmons ranked Johnson as one of the best linebackers in attendance at the Under Armour week.
Johnson, The Times’ 2010 Football Player of the Year, is ranked by Scout.com as the No. 8 prospect at inside linebacker nationally and the 11th best player in the state.
“His performance also makes the UT fans and coaches happy about knowing they have him on board,” Simmons said.
The Under Armour All-Star Game is also a celebration for what these players accomplished during their high school careers. Two days before the game, Miller said each player was called up individually during a jersey presentation to receive their uniform.
The coaches for the game were also household names. On one sideline, former San Francisco 49ers coach and current ESPN commentator Steve Mariucci was in charge. The other team had legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka as head coach. Not bad for a game comprised of 17-and 18-year old high school seniors.
“The Under Armour All-Star Game is a first-class affair,” Miller said. “It’s a great experience for everyone involved.”