KNOXVILLE – On a defense that is filled with question marks, middle linebacker A.J. Johnson stands out as one answer the Vols can rely on as they rebuild one of the worst units in school history from 2012.
His numbers tell the story of his production.
As a true sophomore in 2012, his 138 tackles led SEC. That followed an 80-tackle effort as a true freshman in 2011. He also has 13 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries in his young career. In addition, he was the Vols’ best short-yardage runner in 2012, accounting for six touchdowns on 12 carries out of his variation of the wildcat package.
Johnson doesn’t think his offensive role will continue under coach Butch Jones, but does notice a difference in the defensive preparation this spring.
“They’re pushing me real hard,” Johnson said of the defensive staff. “They’re making me a better player. I’m just learning defense and schemes – Coach [John] Jancek is working with me one-on-one during practice when I’m not on special teams. They’re working me hard.
“As an individual I feel like I’m playing pretty fast. I say it’s easier [than last year] because the calls get in fast – you’ve got to get in fast with how the offense moves.”
He’s also taking on a new role as a leader on the defense. The departure of linebacker Herman Lathers leaves Johnson as the most experienced starter of the unit.
“A bunch,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said when asked how much he’s challenging Johnson to be a leader. “Again, it's a privileged position and guys respect knowledge of the game. So you can be as big and strong and make as many tackles as you want, but the players want the knowledge. They want to know you're tough and they want to know you're smart."
Croom standing out: Jones was pleased with the overall work his team put in individually over spring break, but said one wide receiver stood out on Tuesday as the Vols held their seventh spring practice session.
“One individual who is starting to impress me now is Jason Croom,” Jones said. “I could tell he got in his playbook, he ran over break and I liked the way he approached practice today. He’s a big, 6-4, 225-pound individual and he needs to play like that. I’m very encouraged by what I saw today.”
Croom redshirted in 2012 after a string of injuries kept him off the field. He’s feeling healthy this spring and the departure of UT’s top four pass catchers from last season gives him the opportunity to see the field in 2013.
“I was messed up last year,” he said. “I was just down from the get go. Now I’m healthy and I’m learning a lot more.”
Injuries/absences: Cornerback Eric Gordon, who has been away from the team for undisclosed reasons, did not return on Tuesday.
Junior running back Marlin Lane missed practice to attend to a family health concern at home in Florida, but is expected to return to campus by Tuesday night.
Defensive tackle Allan Carson and tight end Justin Meredith were both observers wearing yellow, non-contact jerseys. Defensive tackle Maurice Couch and left tackle Tiny Richardson were both limited.
Brian Randolph, who is recovering from a torn ACL, participated in contact drills as a second-team safety behind LaDarrell McNeil. Randolph said his surgically-repaired knee is approximately 80 percent healthy at this point.
"They're letting me go [in contact drills]," Randolph said. "It's not 100 percent yet. I can jump better on my good leg than my surgery leg. It's much better than what it used to be, so I'm not worried about it."
• After being assigned No. 91 before spring break as a motivational tactic, true freshman receiver Paul Harris was back to his normal No. 1 jersey on Tuesday. Coaches gave him the traditional lineman number earlier to encourage him to play faster and harder.
• Guard Zach Fulton practiced snapping with the centers some on Tuesday. It’s likely just a precautionary move to have more depth and options along the offensive line.
• Nickelback Jaron Toney had one of the best plays during the open period of practice when he intercepted Justin Worley during a seven-on-seven drill and ran it back for a touchdown.
• Receiver Devrin Young also had a nice showing during the “Tennessee Tough” blocking drills. He stood up cornerback Riyahd Jones and held his block for about five seconds, giving the offense a point in that drill.
• Tackle Ja’Wuan James (70) and guard Marcus Jackson (68) switched numbers just for the day as a late April Fools joke.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga