HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson acknowledged his decision to stay with the Volunteers instead of heading to the NFL was one of the toughest he’s ever had to make.
He decided to stay in school. Now the senior hopes to lead Tennessee to its first winning record since 2009.
The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Johnson will be a defensive anchor for the Volunteers after leading the team with 106 tackles last season. He’s one of the few sure things on a roster that’s undergoing plenty of change during coach Butch Jones’ second season.
The Volunteers have lost seven games in four straight seasons, including last year’s 5-7 mark.
“I came here to be a winner,” Johnson said on Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “And I’ve got one more year to do that.”
Tennessee returns 11 starters but must replace the entire starting offensive and defensive lines. There’s also a quarterback battle between Justin Worley and Joshua Dobbs, who both received extensive playing time last season.
“We are still going through the realities of building a college football program,” Jones said. “We’re the only school in the country that has to replace both starting interior lines.”
One thing that should help the Volunteers is a little bit of continuity. Jones returns his entire assistant coaching staff from last season, which is no small feat for a program that has had four head coaches and countless different assistants over seven seasons.
“It’s critical,” Jones said. “You win with consistency and you win with continuity. For a lot of these individuals, they’ve had too much change.”
Now the only changes will be on the field. Starters must emerge on the offensive and defensive lines, while Jones is giving three quarterbacks — Worley, Dobbs and longshot candidate Nate Peterman — a look under center.
Jones said the competition could last for a while. Worley threw for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season while Dobbs threw for 695 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I’m very, very encouraged by what I’ve seen,” Jones said. “There is no timetable for naming a starter. I want them to compete as much as possible because I think competition is healthy.”
Jones also said that receiver Alton “Pig” Howard is back working out with the team. Howard took a leave of absence from the team during the spring but Jones said he had “one of the best offseasons in our football program.” He caught 44 passes for 388 yards last season.