KNOXVILLE-- (Lauren Moore) Vols' All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson brought his leadership and playmaking abilities to the young defense and special teams during Sunday night's 38-7 win over Utah State.
Johnson said coach Butch Jones told him at the end of last season that he was going to put him on the kickoff team.
And he was perfectly fine with that idea.
"I played a little bit last year," Johnson said regarding playing special teams. "But, I told him, 'I'm ready for it, Coach.' It's always great to play kickoff. It's one of my favorite special teams. You run down and go hit."
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior was responsible for two of Utah State's three turnovers.
He made a quick impact on special teams early in the first quarter, forcing Kennedy Williams to fumble. Freshman Todd Kelly Jr. picked up the loose football, setting up a touchdown on the next play.
When asked about Johnson contributing to special teams more, Jones said kickoff coverage is the first play of defense.
"We need to improve our kickoff coverage from last year, and Johnson has a great sense of getting to the ball," Jones said. "We thought with the youth and inexperience on this football team that he needed to be on that football team and he wanted to do it."
Johnson led the Volunteers with 106 tackles last season. He decided not to leave early for the NFL, but chose to stay to graduate and play his senior season. His commitment and work ethic have been noticed by his teammates.
"He works extra hard," junior safety Brian Randolph said. "He's always the first one down there on kickoffs. He doesn't think too highly of himself not to play on special teams."
Johnson got his first career interception in the fourth quarter.
He was 11 yards short of returning the interception for a touchdown after his 23-yard gain. He credited the defensive line for setting up the interception.
"The D-linemen gave great pressure that allowed me to get it, so it's all on the D-linemen," said Johnson, who was second on the team with nine tackles.
Jones wants the commitment and heart of Johnson to rub off on every player.
After Sunday's win, he's starting to see it some.
"I spoke with A.J. (Johnson) the other day, and I said, 'You know, as much as you keep yourself accountable, you need to start holding your teammates to the same level of accountability that you hold yourself to,'" Jones said. "You could see that rubbing off."