KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/SUBMITTED) -- Sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson can show up and be a good football player. Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said as much after Tuesday's practice at Haslam Field.
It's the unknown possibilities that lie ahead of Johnson that has those around the program excited.
"He has a lot of confidence in his abilities," Dooley said. "I don't think the light ever came on schematically (last year), but he's a football player. Good football players find their way to the ball when they're on defense and that's what he does. He has a long way to go in being a good football player, who has been blessed with a lot of ability and then translating that to playing the best he can play.
"But he could be a special player. He could. It's a lot of mental work. You can't just show up and play ball. He can show up, play ball and be good. But he has a chance to be really good. That's going to require a lot of mental work."
In his rookie season alone, Johnson was second on the Vols with 80 tackles, a figure that ranked tops among SEC freshmen.
The five-time freshman All-America honoree spent the off-season putting in the work to go from `good' to `really good.'
"We were up in the film room almost every night or every other night," Johnson said. "We would go watch film as a unit trying to learn the new defense."
With new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri settling in, the Vols will implore a 3-4 base defense moving forward, a transition that should benefit Johnson. "I think some of the things we were doing with him last year exposed him a little bit in space," Dooley said. "I think how we have kind of structured this defense, it's going to be able to utilize his strengths more often. A.J. is a good player in any scheme. He's a good player. What we have to do is make sure, how can we get him to be the most productive player he can be?"
One of just four true freshmen to rank within the top two on his team in tackles among all D-I FBS schools, Johnson is looking forward to taking the next step. "Now that I have been here for a season, I understand the speed of the game much better," Johnson said. "I can see everything (develop) much quicker than when I first got here. I think in the long run this will be a better fit for me because in this defense the linebackers have the ability to make more plays."
NO TINY OPPORTUNITY
Rising sophomore Antonio "Tiny" Richardson had to sit through a year of learning in his rookie season with the Vols. A four-star recruit coming into to Knoxville, Richardson saw most of his time on the kick-blocking unit in 2011.
"It was a reality check," said Richardson in reflecting on his freshman season. "I thought I was going to come in and get a better opportunity that I did. But I didn't. It humbled me a little more. I was able to sit in the background and learn from the other guys."
The 2012 season figures to be a different one for the Nashville native as the 6-6, 329-pound lineman has gained a lot of experience and confidence heading into spring practice.
"Physically, I feel great, I had a good offseason," said Richardson. "I had a lot of time to learn. Last year was all mental for me. I learned a lot and now that I know what I am doing, I am going to play fast. That was a thing last year, I wasn't able to play as fast. I have guys besides me that know what they are doing and they are helping me. It has been a good experience thus far."
Richardson is hopefully of getting an opportunity to start this fall, but knows that will only come with hard work. That is starting to show with an increase in the Vols' speed early on in camp.
"This off-season we have just been working hard," said Richardson. We were watching the film yesterday from (last season's) Alabama game, watching (and seeing) everybody has just gotten faster. Working hard has really started to pay off."
He had gained a great deal of knowledge from working with upperclassmen such as Dallas Thomas, Ja'Wuan James and Carson Anderson. Richardson has spent a lot of time studying film to improve his technique and skills.
"I get to see it from everyone else's perspective," said Richardson. "This is what I can do to get better. I'm getting Ja'Wuan's perspective, Dallas' perspective, Carson's perspective. All of these guys that have been here and done it. I really appreciate them taking the time and helping me out."
Thomas has embraced the relationship with Richardson and has taken time to work with him.
"We always help each other out on everything," said Thomas, who will be a senior in the fall. "We watch film together, we go over calls. When he is on the field I help him with calls, and make sure he is on the right page as everyone else. It is a give and take. He helps me out sometimes and I help him too."
The Vols' offensive line is far from set as new position coach Sam Pittman is using different combinations.
"We have been working really hard as a unit," said Richardson. "Coach is doing a lot of work switching people from position to position. There are no positions that are set right now. We have just been going back and forth with me and Dallas switching. Getting some guys time at different positions to see where we are."
PUTTING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE
The Vols know they have quite a bit of experience returning in the secondary, but still have a lot of work to do this spring to determine the exact mix of players and positions that will give them the best opportunity to be successful.
"We have a lot of bodies," Dooley said. "Don't confuse the word depth with being good. Depth means we have a lot of guys with some good skill sets that we can try to figure out who our best four or five guys are. I don't know the answer to that. It's going to be a real puzzle back there because we have about 10 or 12 guys competing for five spots."
The five projected starters at the four positions have a combined 58 starts on the defensive side of the ball among them, led by senior Prentiss Waggner who has started 27 contests at either safety or corner in the first three years of his collegiate career.
"I feel like I'm an old guy back there, me and my roommate Rod Wilks," Waggner said. "We feel a whole lot better compared to last year. I think this year we have a lot more depth and I think we have a couple more guys coming in. I think that depth is going to carry over into the fall and get all of those guys ready."
That increased depth in the secondary has allowed Waggner to return to his more natural position at corner, but don't expect him to stop giving advice to the safeties just yet.
"I'm back at full-time corner since the new coaching coaches got here," Waggner said. "I learned those plays and learned the keys and I'm based at corner but I'm going to learn that whole defense. If there is anything I see out there to help the safeties out, I'm going to learn the safeties (position) also. I'm trying to help out Rod and Brian Randolph as much as I can."
The willing recipient of much of that advice is sophomore safety Brian Randolph, who made a tremendous impact in his freshman campaign, finishing fifth on the team with 55 tackles.
"Having a player like Prentiss is like having another coach," Randolph said. "It is amazing how well he picks up the game. If we ever have any questions then we can just ask him. That is a big advantage for (the DBs)." Like Waggner, another player happy to have a set position is fellow senior Rod Wilks who has bounced between offense and defense over his career before settling in at safety last season, recording 26 tackles in 12 games. That experience is something he feels will give him a leg up this spring.
"I learned from my mistakes last year," Wilks said. "It helped me tremendously because last year I went in and was slow with some things. I was like a rookie because I hadn't played much and it was a lot faster than what I had seen in the past in high school. I learned from it, kept my mistakes in my head and made sure that I was going to be focused this year. It helped me out because I am faster now and I know what people do and how they do it."
DAY 2 AND LOOKING AHEAD
Dooley was pleased with Tennessee's second day of work in the 2012 spring session, but as the Vols move forward, so will the workload.
"We had a good day today," Dooley said. "Here's what starts happening now, it's the multiples. We put a lot in every day. The other side of the ball puts a lot in every day. It just keeps growing and growing, the amount of mental decisions that you have to make. It's hard on the young guys, but it's kind of whole-part, whole-teaching. You throw a lot at them. You see what sticks, then you kind of pick up the pieces and you throw some more at them. "
There are a few key factors when determining how much the Vols can handle and when to `see what sticks.'
"Number one, you have to recognize it takes an incredible amount of mental energy and mental effort to be a good football player," Dooley said. "That's investing a lot of time when you're not on the field.
"The second thing that's important - and I told the team this - is making sure you understand what is said and you're not focused on how it's said. In a practice, coaches are screaming. You're hollering and you're making mistakes. So many young players get affected by how the message is getting passed onto them and not what the message is.
"The final thing is not getting frustrated. I think a lot of these guys who are new out here are getting frustrated by the mistakes. They can't get frustrated. You have to learn a little bit every day. The cumulative effect over time is going to pay dividends for them. That's all a work in progress. It was a good second day. The more important thing is we'll have a better feel for our team come Thursday when we put the pads on."
Tennessee is looking to develop a winning edge when the Vols strap the pads on Thursday in a way that was missing last season.
"Physicality on both sides of the ball and really at every position," Dooley said of what he'll be looking for Thursday. "We got whipped too many times at the line of scrimmage last year. There's nothing more important than playing fast and physical. That can make up for a bad step. That can make up for the wrong technique. If you're a physically tough football team, then generally you have a better chance to win."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Dallas Thomas getting work at guard)
“Dallas was great. I talked to Dallas a long time about learning guard. I told them there are two things that are always at work. Number one is what’s best for the team? One of our number one values is being selfless for the organization. It’s also a little selfish boost for him, in a good way, because I know he has dreams of playing after college. It’s a good way for teams to evaluate him as a guard. There have been a number of college tackles who play guard in the NFL. I think it’s a great scenario for the team and it’s a good scenario for Dallas. It doesn’t mean he’s our guard. It only means we’re looking at him.”
(On Dallas Thomas being more vocal)
“Dallas has historically not been a good resource on the line. He is for himself. This is good for Dallas because it’s forcing Dallas to actually talk. Every time after the play I go up and say, ‘Are you all talking?’ I get nervous because I see Tiny (Antonio Richardson) talking. Tiny is not the guy. Tiny needs to listen.”
(On his comfort with Sal Sunseri)
“It was really two things, besides the fact that he’s a great football coach. There are a lot of great football coaches out there. Number one, we’ve worked together. We were assistant coaches together. I know what the core of Sal is. I know what he is as a human being. I know what he is as a competitor. I know how he coaches the players. Number tow was, he’s been in a system and structure that’s very similar to what we’re doing. Those two things made it a great fit for here. There weren’t any personality issues. I didn’t have to figure him out. He didn’t have to figure me out. We talked the same language on what we were doing. That really helped.”
SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On Rod Wilks and Brian Randolph)
“With Brian I think he is a lot more experienced. He sort of developed into a leader on the back-end, being that he is a sophomore and he started a lot of games for us last year. With Rod, he is basically an experienced guy and a key member of special teams. Last year he knew the plays, but this year I think he feels more comfortable because he is an older guy and knows he has to step up.”
(On Wilks changing positions throughout his career)
“It’s been pretty tough on him. I can tell because we are roommates and we talk about it all the time. This whole offseason we have been getting into that playbook, me and him. We’ve been staying up all times of nights, we even created a couple plays on the NCAA football game to put our playbook in there to try get it as best as possible.”
(On if he is used to moving around the secondary)
“I’m used to it. I think right now I’m pretty settled in at corner. I could probably get a little work in at the nickel. Out here I think I’m doing a little bit too much, the trainers are getting mad at me, but in my eyes I’m full go.”
SOPHOMORE DB BRIAN RANDOLPH
(On the advantage having played his freshman year)
“It is a big advantage. I was able to get used to the speed and size of the players. I’m still a little slow at learning the new defense so it balances out.”
(On the changes in the new defense for the DB’s)
“Everything changed a whole lot (for the DB’s). We have fire zones now with two strong safeties and one of those safeties can come down (in the box). I have to start getting used to playing in the box more. I really like that.”
(On the depth at DB after having so many younger guys playing last season)
“We have a lot of guys that now have confidence because they are used to playing so they will not be nervous and that is a huge advantage for us.”
(On all the DB’s progression with the new defense)
“We have been watching a lot of film and studying notes. It is like taking another (college) class.”
(On what he needs to do this coming season)
“I need to get better at covering wide receivers and be quicker. I feel like I was able to get quicker this offseason so I can probably use that to my advantage this year.”
SENIOR DB ROD WILKS
(On either safety being able to move down to play in the box)
“I like (being down in the box), because you are down in more action. Just like Randolph told me today during practice that he likes being down around the ball. You are able to make more plays, get the feel of tackling, getting hype with each other and making plays.
(On being ready to play this year)
“I have no choice really. This is my last year and my dream is to make it big. Hopefully if God blesses me, I can do that one day. I just have to go out and keep working.
(On moving positions early in his career)
“It made me stronger. It made a man out of me. I never quit and I never ran from the situation I was in. I stayed focused and I stayed positive. I just had the strength to keep going. Sometimes you just have to wait and be patient and learn. I just kept my faith. My teammates, my brothers, my coaches just told me to keep working and that’s what I did.”
(On the leadership of the team this spring)
“Totally different, from the coaches to the players. We are pushing each other and if somebody is wrong, we let them know. Even some of the young guys are telling the veterans. They are pushing us and we are pushing them. We have to. Sitting at home and not going to a bowl game last year wasn’t fun. We knew as a team that we were better than that, so we just have to come out here and work and push to be a great team.”
(On difficulty of young players to lead)
“A leader can be anybody. It’s all about who comes forth and who has the heart to do it. It can be a freshman. I’ve seen plenty of guys, like Eric Berry. When he came in as a freshman, he was a leader. We can’t just say that because you are a senior you are a leader. Everybody can be a leader. That’s when you learn that you are coming together as a team and will win more games.”
(On Brian Randolph)
“He’s a lot faster and a lot smarter. He knows the game. Being around Randolph and Prentiss Waggner, they are smart guys. That has helped me out tremendously. I’m just staying focused and learning. If we make a mistake, we come in as a core group and work on things.”
SENIOR OL DALLAS THOMAS
(On working to improve)
“That is always on my mind. We always try to find a time to meet every day and watch the film by ourselves, without the coaches, to see what we are doing. Then we meet up with the coaches if they want to meet up. We are always just trying to get better, especially our run game, that is always on our mind.”
(On being selfless)
“That is the type of guy I am. Whatever the team needs, I am that guy that is going to do it. If they needed me to go play defense, I wouldn’t hesitate to go over there with them at all. It is just about not being selfish and thinking about the team more than yourself. That is all that it