The legal investigation and indefinite suspension of linebacker A.J. Johnson and cornerback Michael Williams leaves the Vols without their leader on defense (Johnson) and a key backup in the secondary (Williams). Johnson, who just became the first Vol since the 1970s to put together three straight 100-tackle seasons, will clearly be the biggest absence that the Vols will have to overcome.
“You just don’t replace his production,” Jones said of Johnson. “So just everyone around our football team has to step up, do their job, not do anymore than what is required of them. They will step up.”
Perhaps nobody will be asked more of than sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who could assume many of the communication aspects of Johnson’s job and could potentially be asked to play both inside and outside linebacker in some instances.
“We will rely on Jalen Reeves-Maybin a little bit more,” Jones said. “Obviously he has experience at the second level of our defense, so we will rely on him a little bit more.”
But Reeves-Maybin isn’t a true inside linebacker and the Vols may also have to turn to an inexperienced player at times to help fill that void. That was a going to be a reality for this defense regardless in 2015, but it hits home sooner than expected with Johnson’s likely absence this weekend.
Jones mentioned Kenny Bynum and Jakob Johnson as two candidates to step up there. Jakob Johnson, a true freshman who got most of the second-team reps at inside linebacker late in Saturday’s blowout win over Kentucky, has been somewhat of a project after moving from Germany just a few years ago and playing football for only a couple seasons before enrolling at UT. At 6-4, 240 pounds, he clearly looks the part and has good athleticism, but this would be his first opportunity to play extended snaps against major competition.
“Work in progress,” Jones said of Jakob Johnson. “Put in the extra time of film study, we knew it would be a developmental process. But what we saw on video was basically what we see everyday. Very, very athletic, very tough, very physical, working on his instincts, working on just the overall knowledge of the game and all the checks and the multitude of checks.
“In this conference there is so many differences in offenses that you have to prepare for week in and week out. The different dynamics, the different skill sets of players that you have to prepare for. He has done a very good job of that.”
Added linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen on Wednesday evening: “I thought today (Jakob Johnson) really stepped up, took command of the huddle, made all the checks, made all the adjustments, really pleasnt surprise that he responded the way that he did. He came in last night, made a ton of adjustments for us last night, looking forward for the challenge.”
Look for Cortez McDowell, Chris Weatherd and Curt Maggitt, who is the Swiss army knife of the defensive front in many regards, to all take on additional work as well. But it’s not just linebacker that will need somebody to step up on Saturday. The secondary will likely be without not only Williams, but, more significantly, also Brian Randolph, who will sit the first half for a suspension due to his ejection for targeting in the second half against Kentucky.
“We are going to need to grow up in a hurry and TK (Todd Kelly Jr.) has done a good job when he came in when Brian had to leave the game,” Jones said. “TK did a very good job of coming in and TK is a very smart individual. He puts his work in, he does his due diligence. I don’t think communication will be a problem. I expect TK to really step up and perform well.”
Offensively, Jones downgraded center Mack Crowder to closer to doubtful earlier this week, meaning sophomore Dylan Wiesman will likely make his first career start there against Missouri.
“Dylan has worked exceptionally hard,” Jones said. “Now is his opportunity, go take advantage of it. We have asked a lot of him. Playing multiple positions. But he is an individual who works hard and I know he is looking forward to the opportunity. We are going to need him to step up.”
That’s the familiar refrain this week – stepping up. The Vols are coming off one of their most impressive stretches of football in a long time as a program. Several players will need to step up to keep that from being derailed.