Former Vols impress at pro day

Austin Johnson
George Richardson/UTADPHOTO

Austin Johnson George Richardson/UTADPHOTO

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- The University of Tennessee hosted Pro Timing Day on Friday afternoon at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, as 10 former Vols showcased their abilities in front of 21 NFL scouts.

Among the former Vols that participated were Anthony Anderson, Art Evans, Nick Guess, Malik Jackson, Austin Johnson, Ben Martin, Tauren Poole, Chip Rhome, Matt Simms and Daryl Vereen.

For most of that unit, Pro Day is what they had been training for since the end of their playing careers at Tennessee.

For Jackson and Poole - who earned NFL Combine invites - it was another chance to highlight their attributes.

But for all 10 former Vols, it was a chance to come home.

"This is calmer," Poole said, comparing it to his NFL Combine experience in late February. "You are not as nervous. I have been here, I'm used to it, I'm comfortable and I know everybody. At the combine, you don't' know people and you don't know what to expect. Here, I know what to expect and I am more familiar with this place."

Overall, the former Vols were pleased with their performances, including Martin, who spent six weeks at St. Vincent's in Indianapolis to prepare.

"I felt like I did pretty well," Martin said. "I showed that I was healthy and that I could do everything. I'm pretty comfortable with it. Now, I just need somebody to take a chance on me."

The NFL Draft, which takes place April 26-28, will witness 32 teams taking chances to improve their futures. Johnson hopes he's one of them.

"I got a lot of good feedback," Johnson said. "Teams seemed interested in me and wanted to talk more. I think I opened some eyes today to people maybe not looking at me until today. I felt good about the day. I felt strong. I just hope and pray for the best."

While those Vols came back to Knoxville to improve their draft stock, one thing that wouldn't be left to chance was the enjoyment of being together again at Tennessee.

"I was really excited to come back and hang out with these guys," Jackson said. "I miss the camaraderie and miss hanging out with these guys. I built a lot of relationships and I was just happy to come back and catch up."

BERRY BACK
Tennessee’s most recent All-American – a unanimous selection in both 2008 and 2009 – was in attendance at the Vols’ Pro Day.

Eric Berry, the 2008 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was all smiles Friday as he caught up with current Tennessee players and staff members.

“It’s always good to come back to Knoxville,” Berry said. “I have so many memories here. Me and the guys come back, reminisce and support the guys going through Pro Day today. It’s always a great time when we come back, just having those memories that we talk about when we were in college. We talk about what’s going on now. It’s always fun.”

Tennessee’s 43rd all-time first-round draft pick, Berry was selected fifth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010.

Having excelled in the pre-draft process two years ago, the 2009 Jim Thorpe Award winner gave Friday’s participants his best advice.

“I just told them to cherish the moment,” Berry said. “Whatever happens, happens. Just be thankful that you have an opportunity to go through Pro Day, but at the same time do it to the best of your ability. It’s always good to have someone that you know that has been involved in it and went through it. I try to give them advice from when I went through it. We do that with everything. That’s just the Tennessee bond that we have, whether it’s Pro Day, life or whatever. We just try to look out for each other.”

Look out for an exclusive feature on Eric Berry next week on UTSports.com.

ADDING POUNDS TO SHED A LABEL
It's not often that someone wants to add weight to lose a label. But that's exactly what defensive lineman Malik Jackson has done since the end of his career at Tennessee this past fall.

After playing at 270 pounds as a Vol, Jackson has added on 20 pounds to shed the "tweener" label as he looks to a future on the NFL. Jackson weighed in a 290 on Friday for the Vols' Pro Day.

"I was a 3-technique in the SEC as 267 to 270 pounds, not too many people do that," said Jackson, who earned All-SEC First-Team Honors from the AP in 2011. "I was trying to get rid of that label of being a skinny guy that's athletic. I wanted to be a big guy that's athletic and do a lot of things."

Three weeks ago, Jackson competed in the NFL Combine in Indianapolis at 284 and he has since gained six more pounds to prove a point to NFL teams.

"I went to the Combine at 284," said Jackson, who had 56 tackles a senior. "I was trying to get ready for (Tennessee Pro Day) and I gained a little bit of weight. I decided to keep it at 290 to see if teams would like that. (I want to) show teams I can play at 290."

After leading Tennessee in tackles for loss with 11 in 2011, Jackson has been working hard to get ready for a future in pro football and despite gaining 20 pounds, and is following a strict diet and regimen.

"They feed us good, six times a day, three big meals and three snacks. You just have to start eating good and living right. You get out of it what you put in.

"The reason I got up to 290 was because I wanted to get rid of the "tweener" label. I really don't think I'm a tweener at 290," he said. "I just wanted to show teams I can get up to 290 and play well and look good in it too."

Jackson is hopeful that his decision to gain the weight will make him more attractive at the next level.

"I think (the scouts) are looking at how well I can play at my weight," said Jackson. "They just want to see how I can use my leverage good and stay low and take on blocks. You know at the next level (NFL), they big guys stay low. So see if you can play low, stay within yourself and play good."

SPLIT DECISION
Austin Johnson spent half of his UT career playing fullback, and the other half as a linebacker. It comes as no surprise, then, that Johnson split his time at Pro Day doing drills for each position.

"When I trained, I just did mostly defensive stuff and worked on linebacker," Johnson said. "This morning, they asked me if I'd do some fullback and running back stuff. I didn't think I'd be doing jump cuts, but I was happy to do whatever they needed."

Johnson, who led the Vols with 81 tackles in 2011, has proven that he can be successful on both sides of the ball.

During his first two seasons, Johnson played fullback, leading the way for Montario Hardesty's 1,345-yard season in 2009. The Hickory, N.C., native also caught a 38-yard touchdown as a sophomore.

"I knew there would be an opportunity because I played on offense and defense," Johnson said. "I knew that there would be teams that would be interested in the offensive side. The more that I can show and do really helps me out and shows my versatility. I was happy to do whatever they asked."

While his ultimate goal is to hear his name called at Radio City Music Hall in New York in late April, Johnson is simply looking for an opportunity to take the next step.

"Obviously, I want to get drafted," Johnson said. "That would be a dream of mine and that would be awesome. At the end of the day, I just want to make a camp. When you make a camp, it's a clean slate and that's when it starts. As long as I get that opportunity to get on a team, show what I have and represent the University of Tennessee, that's what I'll have to do."


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