|Wade Payne/Associated Press|
|A.J. Johnson has been a highly productive middle linebacker for Tennessee.|
HOOVER, Ala. -- Three years just were not enough for Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson.
Johnson, the Volunteers' leader in career tackles among active players, decided to put off entering the NFL draft last winter and returned to UT to play his senior season for a few reasons -- he wanted to get a degree, improve his skills, and take one more shot at playing for a winning college team.
Johnson says he's content with the decision, although he wrestled with it in the winter, as the Volunteers approach the 2014 season.
"There was a lot tied into that. It was a tough decision. One of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make because growing up, as a little kid, I will never forget telling my mom, 'I'm going to be in the NFL,'" Johnson said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. "And she'd say 'Yes, baby, you're going to make it.' I was this close to going into the draft. But I feel like I have more priorities. I came here to Tennessee to win, and I have one more season to do it, and I want to leave a winner."
Since his freshman season, the Vols have gone 5-7 for three consecutive years. As such, Johnson doesn't even know what it feels like to play in a bowl game, much less for a championship.
Johnson said he will graduate in December, and UT coach Butch Jones said that was another factor -- along with improving his skills in pass coverage -- in his decision to stay in school.
"He wants to get a college degree. The NFL will be there for him. ... It's an opportunity for him to improve his coverage skills, his overall knowledge of the game, and to get bigger and stronger, to be able to play at the next level," Jones said.
Johnson (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) plays middle linebacker for UT, and has racked up more than 300 career tackles, including more than 100 in each of the last two seasons. Open-field tackling was a sore spot for Johnson and his defensive teammates on one of the SEC's most porous run defenses last season.
Last fall, an NFC scout told College Football 24/7 that Johnson projected as a third-day draft pick (rounds 4-7) had he opted to turn pro early.
Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.