Richt on Vols’ Johnson: ‘I thought he should have turned pro last year’

If it had been up to Georgia coach Mark Richt, Tennessee middle linebacker A.J. Johnson would be in the NFL right now, rather than getting ready to play against the Bulldogs in Sanford Stadium on Saturday.

“Really, I thought he should have turned pro last year,” Richt said with a smile at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “I don’t know why he came back, but he’s back and doing a great job.”

Johnson, who is from Gainesville, considered leaving Tennessee for the NFL draft after last season but opted to return for his senior year. A first-team All-SEC selection last year, Johnson is averaging 9.7 tackles per game this season, second most in the SEC. He is in his fourth year as a starter for the Vols.

“Without question, A.J. Johnson is their leader,” Richt said. “He’s the catalyst of that defense and probably the catalyst of the team. You see him play with passion, and you see him play with energy.

“Great football player — not a good one but a great one.”

Before the season, Johnson said forgoing the NFL draft “was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make.” But he added, “I came to Tennessee to win, and I have one more season to do that.” The Vols went 4-20 in SEC games and 15-21 overall during his first three seasons. They are 2-1 this season with wins over Utah State and Arkansas State and a loss at Oklahoma.