Johnson continuing to make strides, Shoop feels more comfortable, more

Jesse Simonton, Brent Hubbs, Volquest staff
Vol Quest

One of Tennessee’s early spring standouts has been defensive tackle Alexis Johnson. The junior college transfer has overcome his off-the-field issue and continues to improve his conditioning, showcasing why he was one of the most highly-sought after JUCO-recruits last year.

Johnson, who made just a brief cameo in the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech in 2016, is still a work in progress, but defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is encouraged by the early returns.

“I think for us to be good Alexis is going to have to play well,” Shoop said.

It’s a fair statement considering the Vols are going through spring practice mostly without Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kendal Vickers.

With more than 900 pounds of beef sitting on the sidelines, Johnson is getting a lot of extra reps and attention this spring.

“Right now, without Shy and Kahlil in there, Alexis, Quay (Picou), Paul Bain and Joey Cave. It’s the Four Horsemen there at tackle,” Shoop said, smiling.

“Alexis is working hard to get himself into shape that it requires to play at this level. Just like Jonathan Kongbo and some of those junior college guys, I think sometimes with those junior college guys you all think, ‘Ok. It’s like signing an NFL free agent.’

“But this is a pretty high level of football. When they get here, they don’t get what it’s necessarily all about. But Alexis is working hard and he’s doing all the right things. Our expectations are that he’ll be in the rotation. He's a 300-pound dude who is strong who can hold the point at the line of scrimmage.”

YEAR 2 = MORE COMFORTABLE 

There’s no way to sugar coat it: Tennessee’s defense was a total mess in 2016. Injuries and continuity issues certainly played a major factor, but Shoop admits a lack of comfortability played a role, too.

As he begins his second year with the Vols, Shoop has meshed well with new staffers Brady Hoke and Charlton Warren and believes he understands his personnel much better now.

“Compared to last year, it just feels different,” he said.

“Last year we had a lot of d-lineman injured, not that we don't this year, but it just feels different. I feel like I’m taking better ownership of it. I feel more comfortable. The players feel more comfortable with me. We talk in the room and they know what to expect.

"I know what to expect. So maybe it’s just a comfort level. “It’s necessarily that we’re playing better or worse or this or that. We’re doing a good job of fixing the issues that hurt us last year, and playing to our individual strengths.”

LEANER MCDOWELL UNDERSTANDING MORE

Senior Cortez McDowell has played plenty of snaps in his 37 games in the orange and white. This spring, McDowell is 15 pounds lighter, down to 225, and much wiser heading into his second year in Shoop's defense.

“I definitely wanted to get faster and a lot more explosive,” McDowell said. “I wanted to shed a few pounds and be able to understand the whole defense inside and out from both the MIKE and the WILL (linebacker) positions so that I know what everyone around me is doing.

“I am definitely comfortable with it going through my second spring with coach Shoop. Everything is natural now. I understand the playbook fully now. With that being said, I'm able to help the young guys that don't have that experience. It's big to have the experience going into my second year with coach Shoop's defense to help those guys around me and help them out.”

Through two weeks of spring practice, Shoop has clearly been impressed with what he's seen out of the Georgia native.

"Cortez McDowell has done a really good job at the WILL spot,” Shoop said. “He’s like that 10-year veteran. He just knows where to be and has a nose for making plays. He did it last year. He may not be the most dynamic athlete or this or that, but he knows where to be and what to do.”

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