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Logan • Utah State's offensive players kept noticing one number popping up time and time again when watching film of the Tennessee Vols' defense No. 45.
That the number of A.J.Johnson would stand out to the Aggies is of no surprise. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Johnson is regarded as one of the top linebackers in the nation.
He is on every major preseason award watch list after earning All-SEC honors last year.
Out of the 36 games he has played, he finished 18 with double-figure tackles and ranked third in the SEC last year with 8.8 tackles per game. He also led the team with 8.5 tackles for loss.
"He's a good player, and I feel like we've got to challenge him," said USU running back Joe Hill.
Known as "the beast," by Vols fans, Johnson surprised many by returning to Tennessee rather than leaving for the pros. Count the Aggies as being among those who probably wouldn't have minded seeing him go, since game-planning sure would be a lot easier without him around on Sunday when the teams meet in Knoxville.
"You look at them on defense and A.J. Johnson is everywhere on tape," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "It doesn't matter what game you pull up, No. 45 is there on the screen. The guy needs to be accounted for, or he'll be All-SEC by the end of Sunday."
Both Hill and quarterback Chuckie Keeton have been wearing knee braces on their surgically repaired knees in practice. The two maintain the braces are more for mental comfort than a physical need and plan to wear them in games.
Hill said on Monday he has downgraded to a smaller brace.
"It's a much tighter fit, and I can move my knee and leg much better than with the bigger one," he said.
Sunday, fun day
The opener against Tennessee is just the fourth time in USU history that the program will play on a Sunday. The Aggies played on back-to-back Sundays in December 1971 in Japan against two Japanese All-Star teams, and the 1978 team played against Idaho State also in Japan.
Both Wells and Utah State's players said playing on the Sabbath wasn't a big deal to them. Wells welcomed the chance to get TV coverage since the only other game being played on Sunday is SMU at Baylor.
The Utah State-Tennessee game will be televised by the SEC Network, which is debuting this season.
"To be able to play in that atmosphere, in front of that audience is just an opportunity more than anything to expose our program and show the country what we've done," Wells said.
This and that
The Aggies are 11-5 in their last 16 road games. … With Alex Huerta sidelined with a shoulder injury, the Aggies have moved Nick Vigil to outside linebacker and Utah transfer LT Filiaga will start inside along with Zach Vigil.
Utah State at Tennessee
O Sunday, 5:06 p.m.
TV • SEC Network