Georgia vs. Tennessee
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens
On TV: ESPN
A.J. Johnson is embracing his senior season at Tennessee with the same fervor that led him to become one of the nation’s most talented middle linebackers in his first three seasons.
Johnson still flies to the football just as fast as he did during his illustrious career at Gainesville High. He has always been passionate about playing the game of football, a characteristic that helped him earn First-Team All-SEC honors last season, and he shows it with an energetic flow on the field.
Now, the rest of the nation knows his name from regular performances on national TV, and he’s also a fan favorite for the Volunteer faithful.
“Every time I get to play football, it’s a blessing,” said Johnson, who has started 37 games in the middle of the Tennessee defense. “When I play, I just want to show my style of play, be a beast, and bring my best for the team.”
On Saturday, he’ll have one of his biggest challenges of the season, facing No. 12 Georgia and its steep running game, headed by Heisman hopeful Todd Gurley.
Of course, there’s nothing more that Johnson, who earned the nickname ‘The Beast’ as a Red Elephant, likes than a good challenge.
For his final game in Athens, Johnson is trying to scoop up as many tickets as possible for family and friends. He said his previous trip to play in Athens two years ago, he was able to secure 22 tickets for those who were able to make the short trip to Athens for the game.
“It’s great to play there because I’m able to play close to home in front of everyone,” said Johnson, who leads the Volunteers with 29 tackles this season.
At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, Johnson has gone toe to toe with some other great running backs over the course of his career. This season, Johnson had 11 tackles and a blocked field goal at No. 4 Oklahoma, along with nine tackles and an interception to open the season against Utah State in the season opener.
His career tackles total has ballooned to 382 with almost a full season of college ball remaining. Johnson is up for almost every accolade conceivable for his position, including the Lombardi Award, Butkus Award, Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award — all high honors for college football players.
Despite the individual attention, Johnson said he doesn’t spend any time worrying about winning awards. He’s soaking up every second playing at Tennessee, which was the driving force for returning to school for his senior season over opting for entering his name in the NFL Draft pool.
“You only get four years to play in college,” said Johnson, who ranked fourth in the nation in tackles (138) during his sophomore season.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. projects Johnson to be the sixth-best middle linebacker available in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The former staple to the Red Elephants’ defense was one of the most coveted high school prospects at his position nationally in the Class of 2011, after posting 131 tackles as a junior for the 2009 state runner-up, then 173 stops as a senior.
Johnson’s college success is part of a larger pipeline of Gainesville stars at the next level.
Tennessee’s star linebacker said he’s in regular contact with his friend and former Red Elephants teammate, Thomas Niles, who has already flourished as a starting defensive lineman at Central Florida.
Meanwhile, 2010 Gainesville grad Blake Sims has excelled in the starting role as quarterback for Alabama, while recent Red Elephants grad Deshaun Watson has already assumed the starting quarterback position at Clemson.
Defensive back Fred Payne starts at Western Carolina. Also from Gainesville at the Division-I level, Daunte Carr is a backup defensive back with Arkansas.
Whenever he gets a free minute on Saturday, Johnson is flipping channels to see how his former high school teammates are doing in their games.
“It’s great to watch my high school teammates balling out on TV,” Johnson said.
“I remember about two weeks ago, I was able to catch parts of games with five of my former teammates playing.”