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Nothing Rhymes With Orange: BEAST MODE

After leading the SEC in tackles AND tackles per game in 2012, along with leading the Tennessee Volunteers in Touchdowns and Tackles for Loss as well, you would think that Junior Middle-Linebacker A.J. Johnson  would be enjoying some on-campus star status, but not so. In fact, he may have gotten a bit too mean last year. His play earned him the nickname "The Beast" and it may be backfiring on him, socially.

"When I'm out on campus, it's like a lot of people are scared to approach me, because they just think I'm the beast," says Johnson, who was recently named to the Coaches All-SEC First Team, along with more than a dozen other pre-season honors. I waited for him to say "but, I'm actually a nice person" but he didn't. Point taken.

The social stigma of being "The Beast" doesn't seem to phase A.J. much. "We don't really get a lot of time away from the field, and I spend all that time with my teammates, so it's all good."

During some of that limited time away from the field, the Big Orange linebackers recently took a field trip to focus on a different kind of tackle: fishing tackle. Johnson was adamant that I include that he caught the most fish and would like to be called "The Fisherman" from now on. That nickname is probably not a keeper.

Johnson shares an apartment with fellow linebackers (and lesser fishermen) Dontavis Sapp and newly healthy Curt Maggitt. The three roommates account for 349 career tackles at Tennesssee. Coach Butch Jones announced Tuesday that Maggitt will also be joining A.J. in the return of the effective, fan-favorite "Beast Package" on offense, in which a tough linebacker acts as wildcat quarterback in short-yardage and goal line situations. That's a lot of production for a single dorm room.     

When asked what are his iPod mainstays at the moment, Johnson says it depends. If it is game day, he has a playlist that helps him get into "Beast Mode." The Gainesville, Ga. native detailed a predictably aggressive mix, to match his play, that includes mostly hard Southern rap including 1017 Bricksquad artists Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, and Chief Keef. Away from the field, though, he is into more thoughtful rap, mentioning Kendrick Lamar and new-comer Chance The Rapper, who A.J. seemed surprised I had heard of. (I spared him knowledge of my double-life.)

In his first game of 2013, Johnson was good for two tackles, but it doesn't cross his mind: "I don't care if I get any tackles in a game as long as I play my best and we win." A.J. posted four tackles in 2012's opener against N.C. State, so there's no reason to assume he's off-course for another big year. After all, he only played two quarters against Austin-Peay. This weekend, we'll expect to see Johnson, who has been playing the role of "alpha male" on defense so far this season, for a full four quarters against much tougher competition, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, led by running back Antonio Andrews, who led the FBS in all-purpose yards in 2012.

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