The once-proud Tennessee program fell on some tough times during the coaching tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. While the Volunteers haven't compiled good win-loss records recently, they still have produced some good athletes who are intriguing NFL prospects. Johnson is another in that line after he took the SEC by storm in 2012.
Johnson opened his career in 2011 had 81 tackles with a forced fumble. He was the rare bright spot the next season on Tennessee's woeful 2012 defense. The sophomore finished tied for fifth in the nation with 138 tackles. He also chipped in 8.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and one pass broken up. The Volunteers used Johnson on both sides of the ball as he served as a short-yardage ball-carrier. Johnson ran for six touchdowns with 21 yards on 12 carries. Defenders seemed to hesitate to take on someone his size charging through the hole.
As a junior, Johnson had a bit of a disappointing season. His tackle total dipped to 106. He also had 8.5 tackles for a loss and three passes broken up.
2014 Season Outlook:
If Johnson goes out with a big season, he will have done so while taking on some future NFL talent. The Volunteers a brutal 2014 schedule that will mathc up Johnson against some of the top running backs in college football.
The first big test for Tennessee comes against Oklahoma in the third week. The Sooners showed off the return of their program against Oklahoma State and Alabama to close out the 2013 season. Oklahoma should be a nice warm up for a nasty SEC slate.
Two weeks later, Johnson will have the tough task of matching up against Georgia star running back Todd Gurley. The power and speed back could be a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Johnson will also see some talented running backs against rival Florida including emerging sophomore Kelvin Taylor (son of Fred Taylor).
In late October, Johnson will be challenged by the stable of talented Alabama running backs featuring T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry. After that, Johnson will have to take on South Carolina and power back Mike Davis, who is yet another running back prospect with an early-round skill set.
If Johnson has a strong 2014, the senior will have shown that he can handle the best that college football has to offer. Such a status will help move his draft grade up.
There is a lot to like about Johnson. He is extremely fast, athletic and can be physical. Johnson seems to have the speed and quick-twitch ability to function in space that are key in the passing-driven NFL. With four years of experience in the SEC, Johnson should be ready to make the jump to the NFL.
Johnson is a very fast linebacker, which is his biggest strength. He has the speed to defend runs on the perimeter. Johnson can also be extremely aggressive, hitting players with authority and putting ball-carriers into the ground hard. He has sideline-to-sideline speed and can also can get deep running down the middle seam.
Johnson didn't look as instinctive in 2013 as he did during his sophomore season. The senior needs to improve his ability read his keys and flow to the right place. He looked a little slow in play diagnosis as a junior. Johnson also looked like he was taking on fewer blockers and was trying to run around them too much.
While Johnson had some regression in those areas, his pass coverage looked better as a junior. He did well in zone and demonstrated the athletic ability to cover a lot of ground in the middle of the field. It would help Johnson's draft stock if he can show that he can play some man coverage on tight ends and running backs.
2015 NFL Draft Expectations:
Entering the season, Johnson looks like a second-day prospect. Sources told WalterFootball.com that Johnson would have been at best a third-round pick if he had entered the 2014 NFL Draft, so he was wise to return to Tennessee to improve before going pro.
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