KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – On a week when Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson expected to play the final home game of his productive career, the Volunteers instead must find a way to replace the all-Southeastern Conference performer.
Johnson and sophomore cornerback Michael Williams were suspended from all team-related activities Monday, one day before a Knoxville police report named them as subjects of a rape investigation. The investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed.
While players have insisted the situation hasn't distracted them heading into Saturday's g with No. 19 Missouri (8-2, 5-1, No. 20 CFP), the absences of Johnson and Williams hamper a defense that also must play the first half without junior safety Brian Randolph, who received a targeting penalty last week against Kentucky.
"I'm very confident," freshman defensive end Derek Barnett said. "Everybody's going to come ready to play. I'm not worried about it at all. We're going to do our job and everyone's going to be ready to go."
Tennessee (5-5, 2-4) might not be quite the same without Johnson, who ranks second in the SEC with 101 tackles and leads the conference with 10.1 tackles per game. His 425 career tackles represent Tennessee's second-highest total since the school started keeping track of that statistic in 1970.
"You just don't replace his production," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Just everyone around our football team has to step up, do their job, not do any more than what's required of them. They will step up."
The likely replacement for A.J. Johnson is Jakob Johnson, a freshman who grew up playing football in Germany before moving to Jacksonville, Florida for his senior year of high school. Sophomore Kenny Bynum also is competing for that assignment.
Jakob Johnson, who isn't related to A.J., has made six tackles in a reserve role this season. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen says the freshman has responded well to the increased responsibility.
"I keep forgetting he's only 19 years old and he's only a true freshman," Thigpen said.
The Vols will be counting on plenty of freshmen to perform on defense this week.
Barnett has been a starter all year and is tied for the SEC lead with 18 tackles for loss. Emmanuel Moseley started ahead of Williams last week and likely will remain a starter against Missouri. Todd Kelly Jr. will probably be the first-team strong safety until Randolph returns in the second half.
"They're eager and they're ready to go," sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton said. "It's nothing more than (like) a guy getting hurt and they have to step into that role. It's just another opportunity to go out there on Saturday and showcase what they do, do their job, play well in the system, play for each other, play for this program."
Of course, the circumstances surrounding the absences of A.J. Johnson and Williams make this different than someone stepping in for an injured player.
"I don't think anybody's been distracted," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "We've talked about it. We came to grips with (it). It is reality. We have to continue to educate everyone on these matters. Our guys know that we have a job to do. They're not canceling the game, so let's go play. Let's win."
While most of the players and coaches spoke only about their preparation for this game without commenting on the investigation itself or how it's impacted the people involved, Thigpen voiced his support for A.J. Johnson when he was asked about having the four-year starter suspended before the home finale.
"He's a great player, great kid, great ambassador," Thigpen said. "I look forward to him getting back."