KNOXVILLE – Tennessee junior linebacker A.J. Johnson will return for his senior season, coach Butch Jones confirmed on Tuesday afternoon.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound inside linebacker is coming off two 100-tackle seasons and has garnered multiple conference honors in his three seasons in Knoxville.
He was considered by some draft analysts as a mid-round draft possibility had he left this year.
“He is a violent tackler with strong hands, using aggressive angles and powerful finishing ability,” NFL draft analyst Brugler told Nooga.com in December. “Johnson is a high-effort player and his switch is always flipped on, reading and reacting fast with good speed in pursuit. He doesn’t have elite range and does most of his damage between the tackles, but he needs to improve his ability to shed blocks and stay clean in a crowd.
“I’d like to see Johnson return to Knoxville, but if he comes out, I’d expect him to be drafted in the 2nd-3rd round range, similar to [New England Patriots LB] Brandon Spikes.”
Johnson’s return gives Tennessee a chance to have a formidable linebacker group in 2014. Johnson will start in the middle with junior Curt Maggitt, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL suffered at the end of 2012, likely starting at one of the outside spots.
Nickel packages require just two LBs on the field, though there will be several options for the other outside linebacker spot when the Vols do line up in their traditional 4-3 look.
Sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin was impressive in limited action in 2013 and the Vols are expected to bring in at least half a dozen linebackers in the 2014 signing class including highly-regarded players such as Dillon Bates, Kevin Mouhon and junior college transfer Chris Weatherd.
Harris not returning: Redshirt sophomore linebacker Christian Harris will not return to the Vols in 2014, the team also confirmed on Tuesday afternoon.
The native of Woodstock, Ga., appeared in all 12 games, primarily on special teams, in 2013 after playing in 10 contests in 2012. He leaves UT with five career tackles.
Originally a three-star recruit in Derek Dooley’s first full recruiting class (2011), Harris took a redshirt season in 2011 and then tore his ACL during spring practice in 2012. He overcame that injury in time to return for limited action in 2012.
He is the 11th player to leave the 27-man 2011 signing class before completing his eligibility. With Johnson returning in 2014, playing time would’ve been tough to come by for Harris.