Recruiting In Review: A.J. Johnson

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: Running back Chris Rainey #1 of the Florida Gators attempts to run past A.J. Johnson #45 of the Tennessee Volunteers during a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Well, we've reached the end of the first part of this "daily" feature that hasn't exactly been daily.

But, hey, we've made it, right!?

We've counted down [sort of ... though not necessarily in order] the University of Tennessee football commitments from last year, from those who redshirted or grayshirted to those who had an immediate impact. Though we didn't go from the worst to the best, we certainly believe we saved the player who had the best season for the final day, and, of course, that distinction goes to freshman All-SEC and All-American A.J. Johnson.

Johnson, a linebacker from Gainesville, Ga., who originally committed to Lane Kiffin's staff, decommitted and then re-committed to Derek Dooley's, became an immediate starter along with classmate Curt Maggitt. Phil Steele, FoxSports and The Sporting News all named him a freshman All-American for his first-year performance.

So, below we'll spotlight his year. Then, in case you missed any of the other players' vignettes, I've copied links to those below. Now starting tomorrow, we'll begin profiling the players committed to UT in this year's class. As we all know, that's still an inexact science. The Vols already have one signee and a few mid-term enrollees scheduled to be in Knoxville this weekend. We'll take the safe route and profile them first.

Then, we'll start with the committed [but unsigned] players. As we've learned with the several kids we've had a mutual parting-of-ways with, things are subject to change. Several other players are at least keeping their options open as UT searches for a defensive coordinator, linebackers coach and tight ends/special teams coordinator.

If we profile somebody who winds up decommitting, well, we'll double up [or triple up, if need be] leading up to National Signing Day on Feb. 1.

I sure hope you guys have enjoyed reading these as much as I've enjoyed writing them. Go Vols!

1. A.J. JOHNSON, 6-3, 245 LB GAINESVILLE, GA [GAINESVILLE HS]

Ratings: Rivals 4* No. 136 overall player nationally No. 8 inside linebacker No. 12 player in Georgia, Scout 4* No. 16 middle linebacker, ESPN 4* No. 118 overall player nationally No. 5 inside linebacker, 247 4*. Chose UT over Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Arkansas, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Ole Miss, North Carolina, NC State, Oklahoma State, Southern Cal [virtually everybody].

Looking back: As we said above, Johnson's recruitment wasn't always easy, but his heart was always in Knoxville. Once he committed to the Vols, there was some slight concern he'd wind up as a defensive end with Florida, but he stuck with UT and started immediately. He wasn't always in great position, and he doesn't have the best lateral speed, but Johnson was ALWAYS around the football. He continually improved throughout the year until he arguably became the Vols' best defensive player by the end of the season, finishing with 80 tackles (37 solo), seven tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Led all SEC freshmen in tackles, finishing only behind Eric Berry's 86 for freshmen in UT history. He had three double-digit tackle games in a row and had his best games against the best competition -- 36 tackles in consecutive games against No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama and No. 14 South Carolina.

Looking forward: Ideally, Johnson would move inside where he has the potential to be an All-American middle linebacker. But Derek Dooley will get the best three linebackers on the field, and UT needs to wait and see who it signs in this year's class. If Johnson has to stay outside, he probably needs to work on his lateral speed while trying to stay the same size. He is the prototypical Dooley-sized linebacker, and he doesn't need to lose weight, only work on getting a bit quicker. He is ideal for banging against those teams that like to try to run it down your throat. He isn't the best in coverage, but his instincts are so good, I believe he will make up for his lack of top-end speed as he continues to grow. Once he learns to consistently stay in his gap, he's going to be one of the best linebackers in the SEC and a sure-fire NFL talent.

Final projection: Johnson has the body type to be an elite middle linebacker, but the question is will he play there at UT? The Vols have Christian Harris, who they really like, and they also have Dalton Santos committed right now. Santos is one of the best inside linebackers in high school this year, and you'd think he'll get on the field sooner rather than later. Though Johnson is a bit out-of-position on the outside, he is much better there than Santos or Harris would be, so it's possible he sticks. Regardless, he projects as an NFL MLB, and he'll be a good one. Hopefully, the Vols will be able to maximize his talents, and he'll be a highly decorated player before his playing days are over.

Here's a recap of the series on all last year's signees. [Though some entries profiled more than one player, each is listed individually below. Hope you guys enjoyed it.

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